PITTSTON — As one of three co-chairpersons to the Pittston Tomato Festival, James Zarra’s hands are in just about everything when it comes to the annual event.
Zarra, the grounds supervisor for the festival, can also be held responsible for what the City of Pittston looks like today.
One of the original members of Downtown Tomorrow, Zarra has helped lay the Pittston landscape that has been 20 years in the making. His hard work and dedication to the city has led to his most recent recognition.
Zarra, 54, a lifelong resident of Pittston is grand marshal of the 33rd annual Pittston Tomato Festival Parade, which will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 20.
“I was shocked and honored by it,” he said of being named grand marshal. “I was honored by it and it’s not something I would have thought about — being recognized.”
Though his involvement with the festival spans two decades, Zarra was surprised to learn the committee had chosen him for the honor. He currently serves as the grounds supervisor for the festival.
“I’m more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy and nobody knows what I do until it doesn’t get done,” he laughed. “The Tomato Festival drove the change of this area. It constantly evolved into something and brought in a positive attitude to the area.”
Starting a revitalization
At 26, Zarra was named the mayor of Yatesville in 1988. After serving two terms, he wanted to take a step away from politics, but then-Pittston mayor hopeful Michael Lombardo convinced Zarra to stay on for another term. Zarra worked as Lombardo’s campaign manager and later helped revitalize the city.
Zarra would later run Mayor Jason Klush’s campaign. He serves on the City Redevelopment Authority and as a Pittston representative for Wyoming Valley Sewer Authority, all while installing kitchens for Habitat for Humanity.
Zarra is now one of three co-chairpersons of the Tomato Festival, along with Lori Nocito and Michael Lombardo. Nocito handles the public relations, and Lombardo, assisted by his wife, Susan, takes care of the vendors.
Zarra has a lot to do with the newest edition to the Tomato Festival — a building owned by the city. The building, located on the south corner of the Tomato Festival lot, will have four bays for vendors along with a stage. It will also house equipment used for the city.
“Seeing this town transform itself, it’s not just sticks and bricks,” he said. “It’s more of getting an attitude and people to change.”
While Main Street has been a big starting point for the city, Zarra and his peers, with the help of the city, will be looking to get funding into the neighborhoods through the Neighborhood Housing Initiative. The goal is to improve the overall appearance of the neighborhoods by creating attractive, livable, safe and desired housing.
The initiative is designed to reduce the number of code deficient, vacant and abandoned houses in Pittston’s neighborhoods.
“What we do on Main Street is contagious and it gets people involved,” Zarra said. “We want to get into the neighborhoods with a stronger presence. When we did the Main Street there was minimal funding for the neighborhoods.”
Family roots in Pittston
The son of Vince and Marilyn Zarra, who were affectionately called Lovie and Bud, Zarra is a 1980 graduate of Pittston Area. His first job was working for Sam Marranca’s construction company in Pittston when he was 17.
He graduated from the Johnson College of Technology with a degree in biomedical engineering. He earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from SUNY-Binghamton.
Following graduation, he worked as a biomedical engineer at Penn State University for a year. Deciding it wasn’t a right fit, he started at the QRS Corp., a biomedical equipment service and repair company, and later dealt with the technology behind personal computers and networking.
After owning that business for around 20 years, Zarra then worked for Wyoming Area School District starting in 2000. Currently, he is an engineer for Tammac Holdings Corporation, which included the development of the Arena Hub Plaza, Blue Ridge Trail Golf Course and Hunlock Creek Sand and Gravel.
When he’s not on the job, you’ll see him combing the streets of Pittston working on some sort of project. The Tomato Festival building is his latest endeavor.
Zarra is married to the former Rita Solano, the daughter of Patrick and Marie Solano. Zarra’s step-daughter, Elizabeth McHugh, owns and operates Maxwell’s House, a pet resort in Pittston.
Reach Nick Wagner at 570-991-6406 or on Twitter @Dispatch_Nick