Plans for a $1.2 million rum microdistillery and restaurant in downtown Caro are expected to be on the agenda for the next Caro City Council meeting, but the man behind the plan said Tuesday he feels disappointed in – and duped by – elected officials.
Scott Romain told The Advertiser that he feels councilmembers “baited me in… and I took the bait,” during Monday’s three-hour Caro City Council meeting.
An estimated 150 people crammed into council chambers and spilled out into the hall at the Caro Municipal Building, though many left after the first public comment period. Among those spotted in the crowd were Michigan State Rep. Ed Canfield, R-Sebewaing, Susan R. Holder, president, Caro Chamber of Commerce, and Mikayla Miller, executive director, Caro Chamber of Commerce – though none spoke about the project.
Those who did speak up urged officials to reconsider action taken at a Sept. 19 Caro City Council meeting during which councilmembers voted 5-2 against recommending the Michigan Liquor Control Commission issue Romain the necessary licenses for his rum microdistillery/restaurant project.
Ultimately, the council voted to put reviewing the liquor licenses on the agenda for its next meeting with an understanding it will be sent to a committee for further evaluation. The committee will include members of the Caro Fire Department, DPW, planning commission, and more.
Romain said he feels like councilmembers were desperate to draw attention away from the fact that – in the state’s view – they voted to recommend against state issuance of the licenses because the proposed site of the microdistillery was believed to be too close to a church per state law.
“I took time to process it and realized that it was just a game to get everyone off their backs so when I quit, it’s on me and not them,” Romain said.
The Advertiser asked Romain if that meant pursuing the project was off the table completely in Caro.
“I can’t say that…I haven’t talked to my Caro investors yet,” he said.
As The Advertiser reported June 4, Romain, 30, originally planned to open Thumb Rum & Brew by the end of the year at 119-121 North State Street in Caro (most recently the location of Anna’s Attic). Because rum is made from molasses, the microdistillery would be able to take advantage of close proximity to the Thumb region’s massive sugar beet growing and processing operations.
He said plans included a restaurant called “The Destination,” which is why he painted “What’s Your Destination…2017” in the windows, though in the last two weeks someone has erased the “7” from 2017.
On Sept. 19, however, Caro City Council voted 5-2 against approval of two motions, one involving recommending a license for the microdistillery and another for the restaurant.
Caro Mayor Dick Pouliot, and Councilmembers Gordon Taggett, Brian Rickwalt, Mike Henry, and Charlotte Kish voted no while Councilmembers Joe Greene and Richard Lipan cast the yes votes.
Jared Olson, former Caro city manager, initially told The Advertiser that the main sticking point with councilmembers was the proposed proximity of the rum microdistillery and restaurant to a nearby church, specifically, The Blessing Center, 209 N. State Street.
Per state law, liquor licenses can’t be issued to businesses within 500 feet of a church or school, though debate remains over whether The Blessing Center qualifies as a church (as opposed to a “prayer center”) and/or is within the 500-foot distance.
Regardless, Karen Snider, Caro city clerk, made it clear near the end of Monday’s meeting that the reason the city of Caro gave the state for voting against recommendation of the licenses to Romain’s project was the proximity to the church.
She added that she had contacted an official from the state liquor control commission on Monday to ask about possible options for changing what was submitted on behalf of Caro.
Official meeting minutes from the Sept. 19 meeting state that Pastor David Dietzel, Caro Assembly of God, voiced opposition on behalf of the organization’s board to “establishment of a distillery and place for alcohol consumption.”
Diane Romain, Scott Romain’s mother, asked the council how representatives of the church knew to prepare a statement ahead of the Sept. 19 meeting.
“Somehow (Dietzel) found out that my son’s (project) was going to be on the top of that agenda,” Diane Romain said. “How did that all work…that the minister of that Blessing Center knew that that’s what was on the agenda…and that’s what you were all going to speak about and discuss?”
Snider said she didn’t know how Dietzel knew but that he came in the Friday before the Sept. 19 meeting and “asked if he could get a copy of (the agenda).”
“Rumors spread in Caro faster than the wind blows, so…” Snider said.
“People talk,” Coucilmember Mike Henry said.
In the past two weeks, The Advertiser made repeated attempts to contact Dietzel for further comment on the board’s concerns – and to find out who’s on the board – but messages were not returned.
Councilmembers Joe Greene and Richard Lipan told the crowd Monday that they voted for recommending the licenses essentially to allow Romain to move onto the next phase of the project.
But Henry defended the overall action of the council taken on Sept. 19.
“When we make a decision, we make a decision based on facts,” Henry said. “I am very disappointed in the (Tuscola County) Economic Development…in our management…that didn’t direct Scott in the proper manner.”
Henry said “here’s how it went down.”
“Scott makes his presentation, we asked questions, he didn’t have answers to those questions,” Henry said. “Ten, 15 minutes later it comes up on the agenda, immediately it’s motions made to pass it and second it. At that point, it’s too late to table it.
“This thing should have went back and been discussed and been talked about,” Henry said. “But here’s what happens – when somebody makes that motion, that issue is gone.
“So you wanna call us narrow-minded, closed-minded – I deleted 37 voicemails off my cellphone that somebody sent to me…vulgar, telling me I should leave town…the social media is half of this problem,” Henry said.
He went on to reiterate that he was forced to vote against the idea because he didn’t have enough information “to make an educated decision.”
“Isn’t that what you want your politicians to do in the world, is make good, educated decisions?” Henry said. “We did not get that opportunity. We were forced into making a vote.”
Romain said some Caro Council members were backtracking and overstating the level of detail that sought before voting.
“The reason I was denied was because of a church – not any of those other reasons,” Romain said. “Once they realized they messed up…now they gotta find some other way.
“The paper to the state says it all.”
Romain said the questions alluded to Monday were not in-depth during the Sept. 19 meeting.
“They asked what’s in the wastewater and what are you going to do with it and I said ‘I don’t know yet,’” Romain said.
“But that comes down the road, when we put in the system and the engineers are involved,” Romain said. “We would look at trucking it out, or some kind of approved settling tank that’s in the building.
“So all of that stuff could have been answered if the questions were asked, but the question was ‘What are you going to do with the waste?’
“I don’t know yet,” Romain said. “It’s my fault for being too honest.”
Supporters rallied for the council to take some kind of action on the project. (Click on video to see some of the supporters address council. Story continues below link.)
Dave Romain, Scott Romain’s father, became emotional explaining to council members his son isn’t an outsider to Caro.
“We’ve been here for four generations,” Romain said. “The kid’s trying to do good and he comes in here and he was just kicked…kicked right in the guts because somebody dropped the ball somewhere in this process.
“We’ve been doing this step-by-step-by-step since May and we come in here and you folks don’t even know what he’s doing,” the elder Romain said. “Something’s wrong here.”
Vicki Leland addressed the board and said she was upset with the actions of the Caro City Council.
“The activities of this board are an outrage as far as I can see,” she said.
Kim Vaughan, the only candidate on the November ballot to represent District 3 on the Tuscola County Board of Commissioners, was the only elected official or representative of a business organization to address the council.
He said he is going to do whatever he can to promote business growth in Tuscola County.
“This is the kind of thing I’m looking for…this guy right here,” Vaughan said. “And as a county commissioner, this is a step in the right direction.”
Terri Eden, of Unionville, also spoke in support of the microdistillery.
“To me, this is the biggest thing to hit Caro since Walmart,” she said.
“A town is going to eat this up,” Eden said. “So either it’s Caro or it’s not.
“The question isn’t whether or not is this many going to succeed. The question is some town – Bay City, Sebewaing, whatever it is – some town is going to pick this up. Your question is, is this town Caro or not?”
The next Caro City Council meeting is Oct. 17, 7:30 p.m.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at email@example.com