Liquor license key for McKeesport's old Lemon Tree
The future of a city eatery that has been vacant for more than five years may be revived by plans to transfer a Pittsburgh liquor license to McKeesport.
What many remember as the old Lemon Tree restaurant has been through several incarnations, including as a Stratwood banquet facility under management of then-Kennywood Entertainment. It has been the subject of much speculation for the past year.
With no official plans making their way to city planning or redevelopment entities, the public spun a web of rumors that placed an urgent care facility, an office complex, and an area restaurant that succumbed to fire as potential buyers. Using the White Oak-based Broker-1 Realty Inc. as its listing agency, Kennywood's parent company Festival Fun Parks put the building on the market in June 2012. In October 2012, a potential buyer's offer became contingent, and the listing expired one year later.
Despite the “sold” sign that remains in front of the building, a sale has not been finalized according to real estate records. Allegheny County records and real estate multi-list services still place ownership with Festival Fun Parks.
A Kennywood spokesperson could not discuss who potential buyers may be, but said, “The sale is moving forward and still in progress.”
Despite development plans staying under the radar, the building has been in city council's spotlight for several months as the subject of a liquor license transfer application.
In November, the Pittsburgh-based Bayard Brokers requested an inter-municipal transfer for a liquor license owned by St. Michael Arch Angel Beneficial & Protective Association. The application prompted questions about why a traditional ethnic club from South Oakland would want to find a new home in McKeesport. City officials wanted to know how they would find members and why members would want to drive so far from their neighborhood.
Council tabled the transfer in December and did not act on it in January, with the hope that representatives of the club or brokerage firm would present their plans during a public meeting. Because city officials had not heard from anyone on the club's behalf since November, the transfer request was removed from the table and unanimously voted down on Feb. 5.
Though the formal request letter sent by broker Anthony Pivirotto indicated “the club feels they will have a greater opportunity in the McKeesport area for attracting new members,” that statement is contrary to current plans.
Richard Stanek, the son of club member and license holder Dorothy Stanek, was unaware McKeesport council denied the transfer. He said the club's surviving members were counting on the transfer in order for the license to be sold.
The club closed because of waning membership, but the license remains property of the club's three board members. Stanek said Bayard Brokers informed them that liquor licenses are hot commodities for which potential bar owners are willing to pay thousands of dollars.
With the club having no opportunity for growth in Oakland, a transfer to McKeesport would open new doors, he said.
Stanek remembers the club as something his parents and neighborhood folks enjoyed.
“It was a private club under the Polish Roman Catholic Union,” he recalled of the club's Bates Street location in South Oakland. “It didn't have a marquee or anything. It was very private. Older guys in the neighborhood would walk to it, and they all just passed away over time.”
Pivirotto confirmed Wednesday that he's had no recent contact with club members or city officials. He said Stanek's understanding of the transfer plan is accurate.
He said the Stratwood building owners have drafted a lease agreement with Winghart's Burger and Whiskey Bar.
“It's a hamburger chain. They have one in Market Square, the South Side and (Monroeville Mall),” Pivirotto said. “The landlord told me he has drawings and a lease.”
McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said he would be thrilled to learn that Pivirotto's explanation of Winghart's plans are accurate.
“If that's true, we most certainly would welcome Winghart's into town,” the mayor said. “They are a reputable establishment in the Pittsburgh area right now, and they could have a positive impact on our economy.”
Having another successful business in town could give residents more opportunities to stay local when dining out, and it could bring more out-of-towners into the city, he explained.
Pivirotto said he will contact city officials in coming days to schedule a new public hearing on the license transfer and schedule a presentation before city council.
McKeesport Solicitor J. Jason Elash said the city needs at least 10 days from Pivirotto's formal request to advertise a public hearing. Pivirotto said he hopes to get the process moving in time for council's March 4 caucus and March 5 voting meeting.
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.