HOMER CITY — Plans to establish a microdistillery in the borough have been put on hold after nearly an hour and a half of public commentary and questions during a planning commission hearing Thursday.
The Homer City Planning Commission tabled a recommendation to borough council on whether to amend the borough’s zoning ordinance to classify Disobedient Spirits, LLC, as a commercial use rather than industrial or manufacturing until further input from the community is obtained.
Planning commission members Sam Arone, Tom Plowcha, Laurie Morris, Bob Toth and Kathy Monko tabled the motion. Plowcha said he would like to conduct a public survey through word of mouth to get more feedback about the placement of Disobedient Spirits on Main Street. Plowcha said what he’s heard up until Thursday’s hearing had been pretty positive feedback, but that Thursday night’s discussion brought up a lot of negative points.
The reason for the meeting was to determine whether or not Disobedient Spirits is appropriately classified as manufacturing or if it should be permitted in the commercial zone, namely at 30 S. Main St., right next door to Homer City United Methodist Church, which houses Indiana Area Celebrate Recovery meetings every Thursday evening.
But the issue brought in nearly two dozen community residents, congregation members and citizens involved with Celebrate Recovery, including leaders Shirlee Tanner and the Rev. Joseph Stains, pastor of Homer City United Methodist, to voice their objections to the business, which was proposed by local residents Robert Sechrist and Robert Begg. They are IUP geography and regional planning professors.
They plan to start out selling vodka, rum and whiskey and provide a retail outlet where customers can purchase their products and samples. Sechrist emphasized that the samples will not be free.
Because Disobedient Spirits would be making its products at the facility, the federal government defines it as an establishment engaged in the mechanical, physical or chemical transformation of materials, substances or components into new products, according to a statement Sechrist provided at the hearing.
The statement also said that the government clarifies that definition by saying “establishments that transform materials or substances into new products by hand or in the worker’s home and those engaged in selling to the general public products made on the same premises from which they are sold, such as bakeries, candy stores and custom tailors, may also be included in this sector.”
It goes on to say that the federal way of defining manufacturing acknowledges that some businesses are “technically classified as manufacturing, but practically treated as commercial” and that the decision to treat artisan distilleries and microbreweries as a special category “has been or is being made at state and local levels everywhere,” and that “at the local level, artisan distilleries are increasingly zoned commercial by right.”
Sechrist and Begg state that they “will not generate the intensity, complexity, noise, traffic and emissions of a manufacturing plant,” as they will be a small operation, and should appropriately be zoned commercial.
The placement of the distillery along Main Street drew criticism and emotional pleas from many of those in attendance, who said they would rather see something constructive developed on the property, such as a spiritual center or a health and homeless center, as Stains suggested.
Some said Homer City already has enough bars and establishments that sell alcohol, and that adding another would only be a further detriment to a community they say is already facing problems with drugs and alcohol.
Others voiced concerns about schoolchildren walking past it on their way to and from school and the possibility of minors getting adults to go in and buy alcohol for them, while others shared firsthand experiences of how alcohol has affected them and their families, or someone else they know.
One audience member asked Sechrist if drinking would be allowed on the premises. Sechrist said they are limited by law to allow 1.5 ounces, or the equivalent of one shot, to be consumed for tasting per person. The law requires it to be a half-ounce of any one flavor or product, he said, so they could have three half-ounces of different samples. No alcohol consumption will be allowed other than the 1.5 ounces on the premises, he said.
Sechrist also said they would like to make a product that is reasonably priced and of high quality. He said their business plan indicates they can produce vodka at a retail price, before Pennsylvania taxes, of $17 a bottle. He said they intend to make a whiskey product that they hope they could sell for $45 to $50 a bottle.
He also said hours of retail would be different from manufacturing hours. He said he looking at manufacturing to take place from 8 a.m. to 11 or 11:30 p.m., and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily for the retail facility, but that it’s yet to be determined whether it will be seven days a week. Sechrist said he and Begg don’t “really have much of an interest on Sunday as a business operation” and would probably open at 2 or 3 p.m. that day, should they operate on Sundays. He also said he wasn’t sure if they would stay open until 11 p.m. that day.
“I just don’t know. I don’t know what that’s going to be like until we actually see people coming in the door,” he said.
Resident Clark Bruner asked Sechrist why he chose the property next to Homer City United Methodist, and if he had looked at other properties and in other towns.
Sechrist said he looked in Indiana and surrounding areas, but the property at 30 S. Main was the most favorable to him because it’s within two blocks of the highway and close to nearby businesses.
When Sechrist was asked how he came up with the name of the company, he said they are “attempting to honor a number of people who have gone against the grain and have done wonders for the people who were opposed to them. People like Thoreau, Gandhi, Achilles — thinking of Homer City.”
“You seriously believe that people who come to pick up vodka and rum and whiskey on Main Street at 11 o’clock on a Sunday night are going to be thinking about Homer and Achilles and Gandhi?” Stains asked him.
“Unlikely,” Sechrist said. “But I’ll be thinking of them, and that’s enough for me.”
Stains said it’s “going to say something to the constituency and to the image of our town.”
“They’re not going to be thinking about Gandhi,” he said. “And that’s at least as important as what an individual might privately think when they publish their name before the public.”
One member of the audience, Mary Griffith, said people can’t be controlled from going into an establishment and buying alcohol, but “why should we prepare it and put it in front of them?”
“This town is a pretty family-oriented town, and there’s a lot of people who have this problem in our town, and I just feel that this would be detrimental to our town, to do something like this,” she said, adding that “it affects the whole family; it doesn’t just affect one person.”
Borough council President Richard Morris, who also was in attendance, defended the distillery from an economic standpoint and called the gathering a “grassroots movement.”
Morris said he’s traveled all over the country and the world and that microbreweries have a controlled amount of alcohol that customers can consume. An example he gave was in Quidi Vidi, Newfoundland, where busloads of tourists came in for one reason: to look at the town’s brewery, “and they wanted to help this town survive.” He said the alcoholism and crime rates in the town have not changed “one iota.”
“It’s not an alcoholic consumption atmosphere. It’s not a restaurant. It’s not a bar,” Morris said in regard to Disobedient Spirits. “It’s a little teeny place where somebody’s gonna try to put seven or eight people to work and have a sample, and they’ll take it home.
“With the prices this gentleman’s offering, we’re not going to have an influx of crime coming in here and people starting to drink; there’s not a place for them to drink,” Morris added, saying if they wanted to come to Homer City and drink, “the places (where) that happens are already here.”
Morris said that if the group is “so mystified” about crime and alcoholism and drugs, they should go out at night and look at what goes on, and said that they aren’t calling to get the drug addicts off the streets.
“(Sechrist’s) not turning it into an illustrious, alcoholic town. He wants to bring a little bit of business into town,” Morris said.
“I see an opportunity to bring some extra monies into Homer City, (which) badly needs it. Badly needs it,” he added, saying that “we’re not looking to make it an alcoholic community.”
Harold Hicks, deacon of Shepherd's Heart Fellowship, said his intent wasn’t to keep Sechrist from operating his business, but to make sure that he takes all the necessary precautions. He also said that if it’s like an industrial complex, it should be out with the industrial complexes “where it belongs.”
“Put it out there instead of making it part of your Main Street where it becomes a hazard,” Hicks said, adding that people from Indiana and Homer City have lost their homes because of alcoholism and are now on the streets in Pittsburgh, and that he works with them every Sunday.
“They have names, faces,” he said. “That little half an ounce for someone who has a drinking problem could be a life or death decision for them.”
Chuck Lockard, pastor of the Church of the Nazarene, said he also has traveled the world, and “I have yet to see anything good come out of alcoholism.”
“Every alcoholic will tell you if he or she never took that first drink, they’d never be an alcoholic,” he said.
Lockard said he sees Sechrist’s business bringing “no advantage to Homer City as a community from my perspective or my church’s perspective.”
“And we get the fallout of the people who come and get just a shot and buy the bottle and go wherever they go. And we deal with that weekly,” he said, adding that the majority of people in the area who attend his church “would stand against it 100 percent.”
Sechrist also was asked how he would propose to address the issue of underage drinking. He said Disobedient Spirits would be subject to the same rules and regulations as other establishments as far as checking IDs, proper ServSafe training and installing surveillance equipment inside the establishment.
He mentioned a member from the recovery group who told him recently that “recovery can be a jump-start thing — you try, you fall. You try, and you fall.” The man said he had a stack of tokens showing how many times he had started the recovery process and then fell because he was exposed to the thing that would take him down.
Now, Stains said, the man faces the prospect of coming to the one place that’s gotten him on his feet and to get there, he has to walk by a place that’s going to offer him another opportunity to be taken down.
“It’s the wrong place,” Stains said. “It’s a commercial zone next door to where we’re trying to help lost people get on their feet and save their souls.
“Where in this commercial plan is something redemptive for the lives of the people that it could affect adversely? Was that included in the concept of this plan? And shouldn’t it be, if indeed we have the best interests of the people at heart?” he asked.
Stains also mentioned that he, along with the rest of the community, was informed of the plans for the distillery in the newspaper, not by the borough or council members. He said many weren’t aware there even was a business plan.
Borough secretary Karen Valyo said the borough office has a copy of the business plan on file but that no one called about it or came in to look it over.
“Why didn’t you give us a call? We were there,” Stains said. “That street runs two ways,” he said, asking why the community wasn’t informed. “This is a two-way street, friends. And we’re in it because we want to see people whole.”
Stains said he knows there are people that can consume 1.5 ounces of alcohol and walk away, but for every one of those people, there’s one who can’t. And “whatever profit we have, whatever tax base is increased, is probably going to be needed for those people.”
He also told Sechrist that he could have told Stains of his plans for the property, saying, “You could have called us, sir.”
“You asked the borough if it was OK with them,” Stains said.
As the meeting started to draw to a close, Stains posed a question to those in the room.
“When our retirement is over — and it ends for us all — we need to think about our legacy. What did my life do to make the lives of others not just more pleasurable, but more whole? That’s a legacy. There’s no price you can put on it, individually and collectively,” he said.
He made a plea to the commission members to “do the right thing” and to “show us you have the community’s best interests at heart.”
Now that the motion to make a recommendation to council was tabled, another hearing has to be scheduled within 45 days with two advertisements of the date placed in the newspaper.
Because of Thursday’s turnout, the planning commission will be looking at the availability of the fire hall to hold the next meeting. Arone said he welcomes comments from the community to get a better idea of people’s views about the situation. He said he has his own personal idea “what I think this community needs to do, but as a member of this board, I’ve got to represent the community at large.”