The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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May 10, 2014

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City cites safety in restrictions on Small Ships

SHARON — Sharon took action Wednesday against Quaker Steak & Lube that may scuttle the restaurant’s 34th annual Small Ships Revue.

In a letter to the downtown Sharon restaurant – which is the sole sponsor of the event – City Manager Scott Andrejchak said the town doesn’t have the resources to police the event to “ensure a reasonably safe environment for the public.’’

The Herald obtained a copy of the letter, dated on Tuesday, through a formal request under the state’s Right to Know law.

Held every year on a Friday evening before the Fourth of July, this year’s event was set for June 27. The event, which dates back to 1980, draws thousands and was the biggest single-day attraction for the downtown until WaterFire Sharon began its three events last year along the river.

The Small Ships Revue is a flotilla of makeshift boats and other craft entered by people and businesses that floated down the Shenango River. Boat entries are judged with prizes awarded.

The separately organized Waterfire Sharon features metal baskets set afire in the river with music and other festivities in the background.

In his letter Andrejchak said he reached the conclusion about Small Ships after consulting with city police.

“It is also based on the nature and character of incidents that occurred last year and in prior years,’’ he added. “Without the following measures, the city believes that risks to public safety will become worse and possibly result in injury to the public or police officers.’’

Among the measures that the city will take is to no longer permit a parade before the event and to close access at boat launches at that time. Also, Bicentennial Park will be closed, a fireworks permit will not be issued for the normal display afterwards, and any crowds congregating on city streets will be dispersed.

The letter says the downtown Sharon restaurant had not applied for a special activity with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission or made applications with PennDOT to seek the closure of East State Street during the event.

In a phone interview though, Andrejchak made it clear safety was the real reason behind the decision.

“Public safety isn’t something that’s negotiable,’’ he said. “It’s the most important thing we do. When you have professional police and the police chief in your department say they can’t control the event, you have to take steps.’’

In recent years is the event has turned into a magnet for hoodlums and hooligans, said Mike Menster, Sharon’s police chief. Social media chatter and postings on the Internet among gang members in the greater region about the event was noticeable, he added.

“It’s kind of spun out of control the past couple of years,’’ Menster said. “We’re running into gang members from Youngstown, Warren (Ohio), and New Castle who, for some reason, are attracted to this event. “

Every available officer on the department’s 27-man roster is called in for duty that day with mandatory overtime enforced, Menster said.

Last year the open-container law on alcohol was strictly enforced.

Also, in recent years outside help from Mercer County’s juvenile probation, adult probation and the county’s Drug Task Force were called in, but it didn’t stop fights breaking out on public property or drunken behavior.

Nearly all of those involved in the altercations were 15- to 30-year olds. Pepper spray was used to break up unruly gatherings, but still people, including Sharon police officers, were injured, Menster said.

McDonald’s downtown restaurant has had to close early because the crowds have become so uncontrollable they couldn’t justify keeping it open, Menster said.

In the days following last year’s event, The Herald quoted Menster as saying there were no arrests for open containers, just about a dozen warnings. However he  said then that there were several hundred unruly young people fighting along South Water Avenue for about 45 minutes. About 12 people were arrested, including those for public drunkenness.

Both the police chief and city manager emphasized they weren’t blaming the Lube for the event’s troubles.

“It’s not a Lube issue at all,’’ Andrejchak said. “We love the Lube. It’s a great place and a great neighbor. Unfortunately, what happened is you have folks who hijacked the event and aren’t going to the Lube. They’re going downtown to cause trouble.’’

Fred Dreibholz, chief financial officer for the Lube, said he received the letter Thursday.

“We’re disappointed with the city,’’ Dreibholz said. “We’ve tried to modify the way we hold the event. This is somewhat surprising when we received the letter. We’re disappointed with the tack and tone of the letter.’’

No decision has been made on what to do, including whether to hold Small Ships on the Lube’s private property in the downtown, he said.

“We’re still digesting this,’’ Dreibholz said. “Obviously, we’re going to abide and comply with whatever is required of us by the city.’’

Small Ships isn’t alone when it comes to big downtown events.

WaterFire Sharon attracted more than 50,000 attendees at its first event in the downtown last summer – way beyond what Small Ships does. But Andrejchak and Menster agreed there were almost no incidents at WaterFire.

“I think the worst thing we encountered was a lost child,’’ Menster said. “There are traffic and parking issues with WaterFire, but there’s no violence.’’

While Small Ships, in theory, could still be held on the Lube’s private property, Andrejchak agreed it would be “very, very difficult to do that.’’

Both men said this was a reluctant but necessary decision.

“It’s a shame,’’ Menster said. “But we have to err on the side of caution and prevent anyone from being injured or property being destroyed.’’

Quaker Steak and Lube was founded in Sharon in 1974 and has grown to a national chain of more than 60 casual-dining restaurants. The Small Ships Revue is one of many events held over the years at the original location in Sharon. Tens of thousand of visitors came to downtown Sharon annually in the 1980s and early ’90s for its Bavarian Fun Fest, which ended in 1992 but was revived for one year in 2012. The Lube also holds weekly motorcycle bike nights, which resumed this month.

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