That stereotypical small-town dream happened for young James Olecki. Fresh out of Marywood University (just before Y2K), he set his sights on New York City. A promising interview turned into a budding career in the PR biz. In no time, his family was barreling through the Lincoln Tunnel in pickups loaded Clampett-style and James found himself kicking around his Upper East Side apartment in a brand-new pair of Park Avenue shoes.
It was almost entirely the life he had dreamed up as a kid. Well, right behind becoming the world’s wealthiest kindergarten teacher (I do believe the world is still looking for one of these). He was jet-setting and rubbing shoulders with politicians and celebrities (literally, he bumped into Derek Jeter on his second day in the city). And though more than two decades as a professional problem solver certainly had its perks, something was missing. No, not the quintessential wedding to a beautiful girl from Peckville. He’d figured that part out. Even though he was technically helping people, he wasn’t helping in that way he’d always dreamed he would.
James grew up in Hop Bottom with tiny schools and friendly neighbors and family all around. The pace was slow and, as he looked back on it, he remembered it as somewhat comforting – the idea that you had time to connect to people and to things. And while you can accomplish a lifetime of success in a New York minute, there’s just nothing that compares to the peace you’ll find in a good hour with family or with your dad and his trusty band of wise men at the Nicholson Diner. And so, he came home…
We caught up with James at Scranton’s iconic Ritz Theater and Performing Arts Center, where he’s currently the Chief Executive Officer. It’s also where he hopes to help launch a thousand dreams, and, coincidentally, where he answered that toughest of all queries – Why NEPA?
How long have you lived in NEPA?
Ok, so, in NEPA alone, it’s been round 22 years.
What do you love about your town?
I love the sense of community here. Look, New York City is a great city with lots of benefits, but it doesn’t have that sense of family or community that we have here. And I’m really passionate about that. I also think that Northeastern PA and Scranton, in particular, has a lot to offer. And I see myself having a role in seeing that through and helping it come to life.
What’s your favorite NEPA restaurant?
Ok, so I think that this question, to be fair, really needs to be based on cuisine (laughs). So, spending over half of my life in New York City, I obviously love to socialize and be out and about. I get to know a lot of the people behind all of our great restaurants. If we’re talking Italian, John Tobone at Bar Pazzo and TJ at Cusumano are doing incredible things with their menus. Pizza, it’s definitely Arcaro’s in Taylor. And Frank’s Place in Simpson has an incredible menu, but what really sticks out to me is that they employ young people with special abilities. And that’s very personal to me as my nephew (and homie) Khayden has Down’s Syndrome. So, a place like Frank’s and what they’re doing means the world to me. Honestly though, if you’re looking for great food and great people, and my consistent home base, I would say AJ’s Club Soda in Peckville.
What’s your favorite thing to do in NEPA?
I love to socialize and spend time with family and friends. In the summer, I love to play golf. My family operates Rock Creek Golf Course up in Lenoxville. I enjoy sitting outside, watching a ball game and smoking an occasional cigar with certain family members. I’m the one who’s always looking to organize the next get together. I love to entertain and create memories. I’m also very passionate about working with young kids and creating memories for them and bringing smiles to their faces. You know, memories have become so important to me later in life. And in a world that seems like it’s in constant conflict, I feel like that’s such an important foundation. Distracting children with love and kindness and compassion is something that can’t be simply understated.
What’s next for you?
I’m committed to continuing to make an impact in the community. You know, with the help of Mike and Sheri Melcher, as well as the entire Ritz staff, we’re doing some incredible things to expose children to the arts, which is a fundamental foundation to leadership. We’re creating memorable moments for our families and also playing a role in the emerging vibrancy surrounding NEPA currently. We believe mental health is a major issue that is severely impacting the world as a whole. So, our vision at The Ritz is to be a genuine community resource that offers something for everyone and a safe space where people can come and have fun and hang out and follow their dreams.
Personally, my mission is to use the theater as a stepping stone to create other businesses surrounding mental health and helping children process their feelings and their situations. Part of that, for example, would be that I want to start a social club. It would be similar to the Union League in Philadelphia or the Penn Club in New York City, but not based on class or status. It’s a safe place for children to hang out and have some fun, but also learn to socialize again. I think that’s something that has fallen by the wayside under the pandemic. We would be instilling core values through fun activities. You know, like learning how to shake someone’s hand and look them in the eye, how to tie a tie, proper dinner etiquette, but doing it through cooking classes. We would have all of these fun activities, but also teach children how to get back together again. Really, the big thing, for them, is how to process their emotions and understand their situations. It doesn’t matter what’s going on at home. It doesn’t matter what’s going on at school. I want to create a place where these kids could come and relax and smile and really enjoy their time.
Where do you see NEPA heading in the future?
I truly believe Northeastern PA, particularly Scranton, is entering a renaissance era. After the pandemic, we’ve been seeing people leave the major cities in droves and technology is allowing them to work remotely. And that’s becoming the new way of life. Scranton is a perfect example of one of these “collar” cities. We’re two hours from Philly and New York City, four hours from Boston. These are major hubs that are essentially the heartbeat of the world. So as people adopt technology and look at the economic viability of Scranton as well, we’re going to start attracting people. Look at Lackawanna County. They’re improving their infrastructure significantly. There are tons of great restaurants and parks. We have the RailRiders, the Penguins. The arts are flourishing. There are casinos. It’s really becoming a prime destination for folks leaving those bigger cities. Scranton is attracting more and more young people downtown. It’s vibrant and safe. There are new businesses popping up all over and it seems like new buildings are going up all the time. Graduates are no longer leaving. We’re able to attract great talent to our schools and universities. There are tech companies like Didgebridge that are taking notice of this renaissance and the talent and they want to have a presence here. When you put all those things together, I think we’re going to see some significant growth here in Scranton over the next five years or so.
This is the community that raised me. And it’s time for me to come back and to give back. I’ve been very fortunate. I had a very successful career. And I want to be a role model for others in the community. Could I have stayed in New York? Sure. Could I have continued to keep doing what I was doing? Sure. But I see trends happening – not only with the renaissance in Scranton, but with this mental health issue among young people and I want to help them process those feelings and instill hope and encouragement in them. And if I can help in any way, that’s what I want to do. It’s all really about repayment and giving back to, again, this amazing community that raised me.
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