Proposed Homer City craft distillery's name, location draw opposition
On one block of Main Street in Homer City — where about half the brick and siding storefronts are vacant or shuttered — the smell of mold emanates from one of the buildings.
The pale blue structure, with a crack running down the side, once housed the Runzo grocery store, but has housed a flea market for more than a decade.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania geography professor Bob Sechrist and his retired colleague, Bob Begg, hope to renovate the building and open Disobedient Spirits, a craft whiskey and vodka distillery.
But the folks next door at Homer City United Methodist Church have other ideas.
The notion of a distillery has been unpopular with church members and those attending its weekly Celebrate Recovery meetings, said the Rev. Joe Stains.
Celebrate Recovery is a 12-step program to help people overcome substance abuse, addictions and other challenges.
Dozens affiliated with the church have turned out at recent meetings to raise objections to the proposed distillery's location, name and hours of operation.
At issue is whether the Homer City Planning Commission should add “microdistillery” to a list of businesses that can open in the commercial zone.
The commission will meet on Tuesday in the Homer City Fire Hall to vote on the issue.
The professors said they never anticipated the opposition.
“I feel bad about the opposition. It's not something we expected,” Begg said. “Our dream is (that) we're the good guys. We set up a distillery that will make a little bit of money and we help a Main Street that needs a little bit of help.”
Stains said the proximity of the proposed distillery, which could sell its products and offer up to 1.5 ounces in samples on site, is his chief worry. Overcoming substance abuse or addiction is like learning to walk, sometimes you stumble or fail, Stains said.
“If right next door is an opportunity to buy a shot, that's not helpful,” Stains said. He argues that other locations on Route 119 or Route 22 would provide more space, ample parking and better access for visitors.
But distillery supporters point out that a bar has operated two doors down from the church for decades.
“Somehow these individuals have in their mind that whoever is coming out of their building would fall prey to our alcohol, sold by the bottle, and not fall prey to alcohol served by the glass 30 feet away,” Sechrist said.
Our Place bar closed earlier this month, at least for the summer, while the owners decide whether to reopen in the fall or sell the business, owner Timothy J. Foreback posted on the bar's Facebook page.
Sam Arone, the chairman of the planning commission, said he considers the distillery “a plus-plus” for the borough because it would likely generate more property tax revenue.
The building's assessed value is $31,980 with a total property tax bill of $5,942, according to the Indiana County tax assessment office. The total includes county, borough and school district taxes.
“If these people are going to put close to $400,000 into refurbishing it and making a viable business out of it, the assessed value has to increase considerably,” Arone said.
Renee Ruddock, owner of Doctor Vac vacuum repair shop across from the proposed distillery, said if Begg and Sechrist are willing to fix up the building, the project gets her stamp of approval.
“It's a big gamble ... They bought four walls and one of them is cracked,” Ruddock said. “It would look a little better. It'd have to.”
Stains also raised concerns about the distillery's proposed hours, as late as 11 p.m. on Sunday nights. He said it's a “thumb in the eye,” especially for the Anglican church that rents his building for worship services on Sunday nights.
Sechrist said he and Begg do not intend to change the business's name or location. They remain focused on their quest for the zoning variance from the planning commission, he said.
“The rest is all superfluous,” Sechrist said. “Their points just are not related to the point of law that we're focused on there. Their points are all about other issues.”
If approved on Tuesday, the zoning variance must next go before the Indiana County Planning Commission and finally to Homer City Borough Council for approval, Arone said.
Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.