WILKES-BARRE — Businessman and former dragster driver Joe Amato told his story Friday morning to about 100 people gathered at the Penn State Wilkes-Barre Executive Management Forum at Genetti Hotel and Conference Center in the city’s downtown.
And it was his $5 million downtown investment Amato talked about most. He revealed that Judd Shoval of Kingston is moving his business — Ambit and Shoval — to the theater complex on East Northampton Street and that only three other retail spots remain vacant.
Shoval did not return messages left on his cellphone and at his business. Shoval will release more information on his plans next week, Amato said.
“Downtown Wilkes-Barre has a pulse,” he said. “It has a sense of direction. More than 400,000 people go to the movies every year and use the parking garage. We have to get them outside to the street and patronize the businesses there.”
Amato talked about his youth — he quit school at age 16 to run the family business — his drag racing career and his real estate investments.
Amato, who will be 69 in June, talked about life and making it worth living — working hard and playing hard.
“At the end of the day, I just want to have enough money to buy lunch and play a round of golf,” he said. “Always make time for yourself.”
Amato said the area near the Movies 14 Theater complex is filling up. The large building at the corner of South Washington and East Northampton streets is being renovated for condos and retail space, he said.
He had hoped to attract a grocery store to his building, he said, but that idea appears to have failed. He said a restaurant was considered, but “there are enough restaurants downtown.”
Regarding the purchase of the theater complex buildings, Amato said the previous owner owed $8.1 million and defaulted on the loan. Amato bought the note from the bank for $5 million, he said.
Career picked up speed
Amato had the crowd laughing on several occasions He said his father started out as a huckster, selling produce from a school bus. He later would open a speed shop.
“My dad knew nothing about cars, but here now he owned a speed shop,” Amato said. “I was 11 years old and I was around the business all the time.”
Amato said that business grew to nearly 20 A&A Auto Parts stores and Keystone Automotive Center. And Amato became interested in cars, propelling him to become a Top Fuel drag racing champion.
“My dad got sick when I was 16, so I quit school and ran the business,” he said. “I did all the buying, selling and I paid all the bills. At night I worked on cars.”
Amato now splits his time between Northeastern Pennsylvania and Florida. He has become a real estate developer, transforming the near-empty Gateway Shopping Center in Edwardsville into a thriving retail complex.
“It all fell into place at the Gateway,” he said. “It helps when you have a fitness center as a tenant, a major grocery store across the highway and 40,000 cars driving by every day,” he said.
Amato talked about his latest venture — The Boathouse Restaurant (formerly Dominick’s) at Harveys Lake. He hopes the eatery will open before Memorial Day, offering casual dining, a large beer selection and weekend entertainment. “We will offer good food at reasonable prices,” he said.
Amato purchased the closed business at sheriff’s sale for $240,000. The Partash brothers, owners of Brews Brothers, will run the restaurant, he said.
He told the audience to enjoy life and make the most of it. “I grow tomatoes,” he said. “I’ll grow more this year for the new restaurant. Life is not a dress rehearsal. The harder you work, the luckier you get.”