Microdistillery planned for Sebewaing

A photo of downtown Sebewaing during the middle of a recent weekday shows an area ripe for improvement. The catalyst could be a new project in the area to create a rum microdistillery. (Photo by John Cook)
A photo of downtown Sebewaing during the middle of a recent weekday shows an area ripe for improvement. The catalyst could be a new project in the area to create a rum microdistillery. (Photo by John Cook)

Thumb Rum and Brew Co. plans to build a rum microdistillery in downtown Sebewaing, in the shadows of a Michigan Sugar Co. plant, and home of the Michigan Sugar Festival.

Entrepreneur Scott Romain confirmed plans to The Advertiser Tuesday, after Sebewaing village council discussed the project briefly at its regular meeting Monday.

“I have committed to the village of Sebewaing for the location of Thumb Rum and Brew Company’s pilot plant,” Romain said. “We are early in the process and no time frame has been set.

“Everyone involved has been informed and ready to overcome the obstacles associated with this project,” he added.

Local, county, and state officials said Tuesday that they have been involved in working with Romain on the $600,000 project, expected to initially create 10 jobs.

“We’re really excited,” said Alex Khoury, president, village of Sebewaing. “They’re great people.”

“I’m very supportive of the idea,” Michigan State Rep. Edward “Ned” Canfield, R-Sebewaing, told The Advertiser. “We’d all love our community to prosper and by all signs, it looks like it is beginning to do that.”

“Why shouldn’t Sebewaing have a project like this?” said Sami Khoury, chairman, Huron County Board of Commissioners, whose district includes Sebewaing. “There are a lot of people that frequent the downtown area during the summer, the fall, the hunting season…they should do very well.”

Romain said it’s early in the process and wasn’t ready to talk about an exact location.

As recent as September, Romain was planning a similar project for downtown Caro.

Caro City Council voted 5-2 on Sept. 19, 2016 to not recommend Romain receive the necessary liquor licenses from the state of Michigan because the project location at 119-121 N. State St. was determined to be too close to a church. Officials would later backtrack and say they had other concerns.

The Caro project had a reported price tag of about $1.2 million.

Scott Romain
Scott Romain

Without wanting to get too specific, Romain said there are some differences in the plan for Sebewaing.

“The size and workings of the equipment are the same, but there is a different plan associated with it,” Romain said.

When The Advertiser first reported the news of Caro City Council’s action, village of Sebewaing officials were among the first to express interest in working with Romain. He would later say Bay City and Croswell were at least being considered.

Locally, efforts having been ramping up to give investors and entrepreneurs reason to do business in downtown Sebewaing, which is located on the Sebewaing River but faces the challenge of being off of M-25.

Among the developments:

  • Canfield said “several of the (downtown) buildings have sold in the last year to people who are committed to doing something in our community.” Canfield is among them. He bought the former Lincoln Theatre and is in the process of renovating it.
  • Brainstorming sessions about how to promote the downtown area. Another one is set for Feb. 16, 7 p.m., at the Sebewaing Library.
  • Offering financial incentives on utility costs through the Sebewaing Light & Water Department. Melanie McCoy, director, Sebewaing Light & Water, developed the program.
  • Participation in the Michigan Main Street program, which is an initiative offered through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA).
    The program uses a so-called “four-point approach” to encourage economic development through historic preservation in ways that also take into account current market conditions by focusing on four points: design, economic restructuring, promotion, and organization.
  • The village is working on a new master plan.
  • An open house Nov. 3, 2016, led by the Sebewaing Main Street Action Group was held to show potential business owners more than 10 properties in the downtown area available for sale or lease. The properties ranged from less than 2,000 square feet to more than 11,000. (At least one representative of Thumb Rum and Brew was present).

Alex Khoury said the open house was key to establishing a working relationship with Romain.

“They came and we exchanged contact info at the open house and we’ve been in contact,” Khoury said. “After they left I told them to contact us if they need anything.”

The Huron County Economic Development Corp. (HCEDC) also has been involved.

Carl Osentoski, executive director, HCEDC, said the organization is always working to help marry communities like Sebewaing with developers such as Romain.

“The challenge for all small, rural communities is, how do you try to reinvigorate the downtowns?” he said. “Coming up with ideas, or opportunities, those kinds of things is always the challenge. It always has been, and always will be.”

Osentoski pointed to the trend in the way people shop online as opposed to going to a downtown area as a prime example of how officials need to think different when it comes to the future of downtown areas.

“As there’s available storefronts, how do you fill those, and to ensure that they’re there for a long time?” he said. “We’re working with Sebewaing on that – how do you create excitement in the downtown?”

To that point, Osentoski said, a project such as Romain’s could be an important part of the puzzle.

Ostentoski confirmed he has spoken with Romain via phone and “we’re trying to line up if there are any state resources we could tap into.”

“And we’re still exploring that,” he said. “I have a few phone calls still that I’m waiting to be returned.

“We have a lot of work to do between now and when he hopefully opens the distillery in the near future,” Osentoski said.

Village of Sebewaing officials discussed a distillery at Monday’s meeting.

It was stated that currently, a chemist is looking at ways to dispose of byproduct from a distillery.

The subject was among the first questions officials in the city of Caro had when Romain discussed the idea in general during a meeting last September – the same meeting where they voted against recommending the state issue him the necessary liquor licenses.

During Monday’s meeting in Sebewaing, board member Brandy Slocum asked about “the impact on the lagoons” with “the possibility of the distillery coming in.”

“Basically, what we found out about that whole deal is that we have to wait for the chemist to take samples so we know what kinds of waste there are and how it has to be disposed,” said Larry Heider, village president pro tem.

Slocum asked again about the potential impact.

“Until the chemist comes back, we don’t know anything,” Heider said. “That’s what they’re waiting for, too, because they don’t know if they should use sugar beet pulp – which supposedly is dirtier – or pure sugar.”

When Romain was looking to develop the project in Caro, he said the appeal (in addition to moving back to the Thumb region) was the area’s large supply of sugar beets, which is needed in Romain’s distillation process.

“It’s all stuff that’s got to be worked out through the chemist so we’re basically at a stop until they can give us a report on how much they produce, how much byproduct there would be, and stuff like that,” Heider said. “Everything sitting on the chemist right now.”

Khoury said there are three options for how by-product waste from a distillery could be disposed.

The options are using the village’s wastewater treatment system, working with Michigan Sugar Co. to use their wastewater lagoons, or having the byproduct shipped out.

“There’s us, which if the numbers don’t come back right, they can’t, the sugar factory ponds, or get it shipped out,” Khoury said.

As The Advertiser has previously reported, at processing facilities, Michigan Sugar has waste ponds where plant wastewater is routed for treatment in what is called known as “plain clarification,” or more commonly, sedimentation.

At the Caro plant, the wastewater moves across the Cass River via a large pipe suspended above the water.

The wastewater sits out in the open as the heavy organics float to the bottom of the ponds, essentially using the same treatment method it did in the early 1900s.

A spokesman for Michigan Sugar told The Advertiser in July the sediment “is essentially topsoil washed off the beets with some organic material. The sediment is not a waste material but rather topsoil which is reapplied in most cases to farmland from which it came.”

Each facility has a permit to discharge a certain amount of the wastewater that has gone through a number of treatment steps into nearby bodies of water, which are often within feet of the lagoons. With the exception of infrequent tests by the DEQ, Michigan Sugar must self-monitor discharges from the wastewater ponds and provide the info to the DEQ.

At its Caro plant, for example, Michigan Sugar’s permit allows it to discharge up to 11,520 gallons per day (4.2 million gallons a year) into the Cass River from “areas located in Indian Fields (sic) Township.”

Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at andrew@tcadvertiser.com

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