Liquor dispute turns testy
HOMER CITY — What started out as a civil question-and-answer session with one of the proprietors of a proposed distillery on Main Street in Homer City grew into frustration and anger Tuesday at Homer City United Methodist Church.
Disobedient Spirits co-owner Robert Sechrist accepted an invitation by the Rev. Joseph Stains, pastor of the church, to attend the church’s monthly council meeting and answer questions and share his perspective on the distillery, which would be housed next door to the church, which holds Celebrate Recovery meetings every Thursday.
Sechrist fielded questions — ranging from the renovation process and choice of location to possible intent for expansion as well as his anticipated tourist base — from an audience of about 24 people. His business partner, Robert Begg, was not in attendance.
Sechrist said he and Begg intend to open Disobedient Spirits in the former Runzo grocery store at 30 S. Main St. “before too long,” citing a bit of a delay.
He said the building will be gutted down to the cinderblock walls and reconstructed from the ground up, and the roof replaced. He said some of the equipment for the distillery has started to arrive and he and Begg have been allowed to store it in the building for the time being.
Sechrist also said they can’t obtain a liquor license from the state until they have a fully functional facility.
“Only at that time will state inspectors come through and authorize us to turn it on,” he said.
Sechrist said he and Begg think they will be producing something that will sell, and as an example, mentioned the Wigle distillery in downtown Pittsburgh that recently released a 100-gallon batch of its product before noon.
“So, I don’t think it’s a gamble,” he said.
One of the women present said she’s one of the people who takes offense at the name Disobedient Spirits when “we’re trying to follow God’s spirit, it just seems … I think that there’s more to words than what you’re giving credence to.
“As a professor, I would think that you would know that your words are very powerful. … There’s meaning in the words.”
Sechrist said she was welcome to take offense to it.
“That’s my name. I don’t see what good it does anyone, but if you feel offended, that’s in your brain, not mine,” Sechrist replied.
Sechrist also told those present that any odors would be captured and it would be a “closed system” where everything is sealed.
The question was raised again about the distillery’s hours of operation, and Sechrist said he would draw a distinction between retail hours and hours for employees in the back for processing. He said they intend to stay open until 11 p.m. on weeknights but haven’t settled on weekend hours, including Sunday for tourism.
“We know Sunday hours are important; that is when the tourists are touring. It’s not our intention to interfere with your services and what you’re doing,” he said.
Bob Piccirillo asked Sechrist why they chose that building in such close proximity to the church and to the school “and to those kids that walk down through there.”
“Why there? There’s no parking, the building itself is dilapidated — I think anybody who lives in Homer City considers it an eyesore that needs to be removed — the smell that comes from the building when you walk by from the mildew and the mold. We long-wished that it wasn’t there,” he said. “Why that spot and why does it have to be so close to what we do as our living, as our vocation and the number of people from Celebrate Recovery who come and express the temptation and the challenge that it is for them? That should matter for some.”
Piccirillo went on to say the group’s main question isn’t about Sechrist’s and Begg’s right to make whatever they want and sell it, but it’s about the location.
Sechrist said they got a “fantastic deal” on the property, he said property can be difficult to obtain in Indiana County because of the Marcellus shale industry.
“You can’t find building space … it’s just not available,” he said. He added that they chose downtown Homer City because it’s “a central location in the middle of the county, easily accessible. We’ll be two blocks off of 119, and we hope to encourage spillover business.”
He said he anticipates drawing tourists from Pittsburgh, Greensburg and Johnstown, and that it would be a stop for people visiting wineries in the area as well.
Another in attendance said she doesn’t think Homer City’s economy is going to be “fixed by this situation.”
Some people present raised a concern about the distillery expanding and taking up more building space. The distillery would occupy half of the building, and Sechrist and Begg are looking for tenants to occupy the other half. Asked if he would want to make the place bigger one day, “Oh, I would love to,” he said. “That would be great.”
Sechrist said “anything’s possible” regarding the distillery, and that he would not be willing to put in writing that they would not be open on Sundays.
“We will not be open on Sunday morning,” he said.
That response brought up a discrepancy from the April 2 borough council meeting at which Begg said if it made a difference to Homer City, “we don’t need to be open on Sundays.”
Sechrist said what Begg was referring to was the possibility that the borough would put that restriction on them beyond the state’s restrictions “as part of the variants that we are requesting,” but someone in attendance who also was at the borough council meeting said that was not the way he said it and that she heard Begg word for word.
In that case, Sechrist said he disagrees with Begg’s statement.
“I will not argue that point with you. I simply will say that I, if that is exactly what he said, disagree with what he said, and the two of us will have to slug that out,” he said. “But I think I’ll come down the winner because of the tourists and our intention to sell to tourists.”
Harold Hicks, deacon of Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship, said he believes that their intention is to sublet the remaining building space because they are going to start out making a few thousand gallons of product but that as they grow, the amount they produce is going to need the entire site for production.
“So when you present the building, I think you should present it as ‘our overall objective is to occupy this entire space for the production of alcoholic beverages,’” Hicks said. “To say that you’re splitting it up, that’s a convenience for now, I think, for you to be able to sway some individuals who might believe you’re really being a nice guy.”
Sechrist said he wasn’t sure where that comment was leading.
“You’re trying to get on the better side of the people who have to make the vote. The bottom line is you intend to use the whole building,” Hicks said.
“I hope that I am very successful,” Sechrist replied.
He also said that discussion about an alternate location, such as empty industrial buildings in the county, “is immaterial.”
“We can discuss it all we want here; the planning commission will make the decision,” he said. “If the planning commission says no, then we’ll certainly find something else somewhere else. It’ll hold us back a couple weeks, no big deal.”
“No matter what our concerns are, on a moral basis or a spiritual basis and the threat we feel to our community and to the members of this church and the people who use this church for their recovery situation, you’ve decided on that building and we’re not going to sway you in any way, shape or form,” Piccirillo said.
“No,” Sechrist said.
Then the discussion started to escalate.
Stains asked Sechrist what kind of relationship he would like to foster with the community.
“A profitable one,” he said. The statement drew remarks from some in the audience, saying he only cared about his bottom line and not members of the community.
When he was asked if he would move his family to Homer City, he said, “I don’t know; I got a nice place in Indiana that I’m quite happy with,” which drew some criticism that he would do business in a community away from his own.
“That’s business,” he said.
He also was asked, being a businessman, if it would be wise to get to know his neighbors before venturing into a business.
“I think I know my neighbors,” Sechrist said, adding that he met some of his neighbors and “had a very sociable time drinking whiskey with them.”
“So in terms of cultivating a relationship with the community, and its people and the welfare and the future of Homer City — that’s not really on the stage here,” Stains said to Sechrist, adding that Sechrist is satisfied with just a profitable relationship.
“I can be satisfied, yes. … Are you the community and the sole community? Are there other people who aren’t in this building in the community?” Sechrist asked.
Someone spoke up and said a lot more people probably will be at the next planning commission meeting on April 23.
“And I encourage every citizen to come out — bring the children; it’s a good exercise in democracy,” Sechrist said.
Another concern raised was parking in proximity to the church.
“If the parking is that close to the church right there and people are coming from all over, there’s going to be children using this — we have Scouts, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, kids’ programs. That just makes me nervous,” said one woman who did not identify herself.
“Well, maybe you should be. Maybe you should put up a fence,” Sechrist told her.
“Wow. That just hit a real personal note with me,” another woman said. “Just to think that somebody could be seriously injured or killed because somebody is on alcohol or some other drug just strikes me …”
“Where’s the other drugs?” Sechrist asked.
“I’m just saying, alcohol is a drug. That’s all I’m saying. It’s a drug. And that just strikes me that you are so flippant — I’m sorry, I am angry — that you are so flippant about the safety of children that we should put up a fence,” she responded.
At that point, a motion was made to end the discussion within five minutes.