Armstrong County billboard owner on controversy: ‘I will not give in’
The owner of an Armstrong County gas station said Thursday he might close his business after Sunoco and at least two local fuel suppliers cut ties with him over controversial messages he posted to a digital billboard.
John Placek, who owns both the billboard and a gas station along Route 422 in Worthington, said he has not yet decided whether to find a new supplier.
“I will not bend, I will not give in,” Placek said. “They can take my business. They can do whatever the hell they want. I don’t care. I’m going to stay focused. I’m going to perform God’s work. God wants us to be united.”
Placek said he regretted the recent billboard posts, including one with a racial slur that questioned why black people can say the slur and white people can’t.
“My intentions were never to hurt anyone, or to offend anyone,” he told the Tribune-Review. “I know I have, and I do regret that. But I made a mistake, and I’m not going to apologize for it. I’m human. People make mistakes.”
Another message appeared after former East Pittsburgh police Officer Michael Rosfeld, who is white, was found not guilty of homicide last week for fatally shooting black teenager Antwon Rose II during a June 19 traffic stop. The billboard displayed the word “Policeman” above a photo of Rosfeld and “Criminal” above Rose’s photo, along with the message, “Legal System Works, Justice Served, Get over it.”
On Thursday, the billboard displayed only two messages: one for a local fish fry and another for “A Night at the Races” at the Worthington Civic Center.
Placek said he is planning additional messages that will “promote harmony.”
Sunoco responded Wednesday to the earlier messages by announcing it would halt fuel deliveries and remove all Sunoco signage and trademarks from the Worthington Station. By Thursday, tarps covered the Sunoco signage. At least two fuel suppliers also have decided not to do business with him.
Placek said his intention was to spark a debate.
“This is what I was after: A grassroots movement to talk about the most important and destructive thing in our society, race and racism,” Placek said.
Placek owns the billboard but leases the land from the Worthington West Franklin Volunteer Fire Department. He would not comment on the nature of his relationship with the volunteer fire department.
Messages left with the fire department Thursday were not returned.
“I am exercising my freedom of speech,” Placek said. “I poured my blood so that people in our country can do that.”
A lifelong resident of Armstrong County, Placek grew up in Ford Cliff. He said he served in the Army for 22 years as an infantry aviation pilot, including two tours in Vietnam.
Placek repeatedly said he is not a racist or a white supremacist. Rather, he said he wants people to pay attention to his message that “there’s only one race, the human race.”
Bradigan’s Inc. had supplied gasoline to Placek’s station since 2002 through an agreement with Sunoco. The Kittanning-based company terminated its contract with Placek on March 26, after Sunoco told them that they would be ending their relationship with the Worthington site, according to Andy Bradigan, the company’s corporate secretary.
“On top of that, Bradigan’s made the decision internally that we would not support the individual that is responsible for those posts, and his stance on those various issues that he was referring to,” Bradigan said.
Bradigan said he’s been in touch with Sunoco about the issue since early February, when other messages Sunoco deemed inappropriate were posted to the billboard.
“At that time, they kind of let him slide,” Bradigan said.
Bradigan’s could take a bit of a hit as a result of losing the business, Bradigan said.
“In a situation like this, we strongly believe that our values, our principles, must override profits and revenue,” Bradigan said.
The West Deer-based Glassmere Fuels Inc. gasoline supply company also has ended its relationship with Placek and his gas station.
“Glassmere has terminated any and all relationships with this guy,” Controller Chris Burkhiser said. “We don’t discriminate against anybody — race, gender, religion, nobody. So we have severed ties.”
Owners of the Subway sandwich shop attached to Placek’s gas station are working to dissociate their business from Placek.
Franchisee Timothy Murray, who runs the Subway, said he rents the space from Placek, his landlord.
He’s working with his attorneys to find out how he might be able to terminate the lease early, he said.
“As of right now, I’m under a legal lease with John,” said Murray, who owns several Subway franchises in Clarion and Armstrong counties. “I can’t just walk out of there.”
Murray said he’s seen a 12 percent to 20 percent drop in business as a result of the billboard controversy.
“I believe in freedom of speech, but when it drives division in our nation against those who may not have the same political affiliation, gender, race, beliefs, etc., then it becomes an issue,” Murray said. “This sign is an example of someone that has went too far.”
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .