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Anti-strip club protesters target Tri-Star Ford

| Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, 12:44 p.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Saints and Sinners Gentleman's Club along Walnut Street could open Friday despite opposition from city officials and residents.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Protesting the planned opening of Saints and Sinners Gentlemen's Club outside of building owners' Tri-Star dealership, from left, are Chip Jefferson of West Mifflin and the Rev. Kathy Barnhart of Beulah Park and Christy Park United Methodist churches.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Participating in a protest outside Tri-Star's Olympia Shopping Center dealership, from left, are the Rev. Earlene Coleman of Bethlehem Baptist Church, the Rev. Karin Crosby-Wilson of Word Missionary Baptist Church, the Rev. Deb Kociban of First, Kephart and Wesley United Methodist churches.

Tri-Star Ford employees believe they are caught in the middle of a growing dispute between a would-be strip club operation and churches they attend in the McKeesport area.

“We all live here, work here and go to church here,” Tri-Star Ford general manager Guy Lettieri said after meeting on Friday morning with protesters from the McKeesport Ministerium.

Members of churches in the ministerium went to Tri-Star Ford to start a vigil of prayer and protest against a strip club Scott Birdseye of Irwin wants to locate half a mile away at the old Chick's Grill.

On Friday, the more than 40 Tri-Star Ford employees expressed their opposition to Birdseye's plan in a quarter-page ad in The Daily News.

They sought to distinguish Tri-Star Ford from Tri-Star Holdings Ltd., a real estate entity with properties across Western Pennsylvania, including buildings leased to Tri-Star dealerships.

“Tri-Star Ford of McKeesport is a completely separate entity and is not under the ownership of Tri-Star Holdings,” the ad read.

According to Allegheny County real estate records, Tri-Star Holdings Ltd. owns the building leased by Tri-Star Ford as well as the former Chick's Grill, also known as Tube City Plaza, at 3711 Walnut St.

It's at the Walnut Street location Birdseye seeks to start his Saints and Sinners Gentlemen's Club.

“We're here to be good corporate citizens and represent the community well,” Tri-Star Ford vice president Jack Bartko said.

The ad said Tri-Star Ford employees “do not support this effort (by Birdseye) nor do they want to be associated in any way with this type of business.”

Kevin Sergent is a principal in both the eight Tri-Star Motors dealerships including Tri-Star Ford and Tri-Star Holdings Ltd., though there are different investors with Sergent in each venture.

“We've already had prayer up there at the door,” the Rev. Earlene Coleman of Bethlehem Baptist Church said, confirming the ministerium group met with Lettieri and Bartko.

Shortly thereafter the ministerium representatives set up shop between the Tri-Star lot and a Port Authority park-and-ride lot.

Coleman had a sign touting Cherepko's “message campaign” that emphasizes “respect, hope, love and dignity.”

Other signs said, “We love saints and sinners but say no to strip clubs.”

Some noted the irony of the expression “saints and sinners,” which called to mind the 16th century German reformer the Rev. Martin Luther's opinion that a Christian is both a saint and a sinner.

There were more contemporary concerns, such as those about youngsters going to a skating rink along Eden Park Boulevard, not far from the Chick's Grill location.

“Look at the proximity, and there will be over 100 kids there,” said Frank Francis, a member of St. Paul AME Church in McKeesport.

“You can't wait for police to say a child has been snatched going to that skating rink,” Coleman said.

Another protester reiterated a suggestion made at Monday's town hall meeting hosted by the ministerium, about taking pictures of those going to the strip club.

“There is some man who is going there who does not want to be seen,” said Deacon Brent Robertson from Bethlehem Baptist Church.

Birdseye planned to open last week but didn't after Mayor Michael Cherepko promised to shut it down because it did not have required city and state permits.

Birdseye's strip club plan has been touted on a Facebook page that as of Friday had 143 “likes.”

The last posting on that page, dated Feb. 15, was not specific about a new opening date though it expressed a hope “to open in the next week or so.”

Bartko and Lettieri confirmed that Sergent has had conversations with Cherepko about the issue. Cherepko said he has met with Birdseye, too.

“We're trying to get things straight with the city,” Birdseye insisted, but acknowledged the effort has been “slow.”

Birdseye declined comment about the protest and referred other questions to his attorney Brad Sommer who was unavailable at presstime.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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