Caro City Council member Joe Greene accused his fellow elected officials of discrimination, overstepping its bounds, and colluding to effectively run a $1.2 million investment out of town.
Joe Greene, member, Caro City Council, even took an opportunity to step away from the council’s table to address the board and those in attendance as a member of the community – a first in his 10 years as an elected official.
Caro elected officials blew an opportunity presented to them by Scott Romain – a Caro native who proposed to build a $1.2 million rum microdistillery/restaurant in downtown Caro, a project many have recently said would bring much needed business activity into town.
Instead, Caro City Council voted Sept. 19 against recommending the project receive the necessary liquor licenses. The official reason given to the state was that it was too close to a church.
“When we did this, it came to be that we were taking on the state’s responsibility to approve the liquor license – we said it was within a certain distance of a church or school,” said Greene, who cast one of two votes recommending Romain be granted the licenses.
“We were the judge and jury before they even had a chance to move that far,” Greene said. “We stopped business.”
“I feel like we don’t have the attitude of ‘Yes we can help people come to Caro to open a business’ because it was a great investment,’” Greene said.
Still, Caro City Council voted Monday to form a committee to reconsider and further evaluate Romain’s plans. The committee includes several city department heads, Romain, and four council members, which means the meeting is open to the public.
The first meeting is tonight (Wednesday, Oct. 19) at 6 p.m. at the Caro Municipal Building. Romain says he plans to participate and isn’t ruling out the business for Caro, though he is being courted by other jurisdictions.
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 derived 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.
Romain’s plans included a restaurant called “The Destination,” which is why he painted “What’s Your Destination…2017” in the windows, though the “2017” is now gone.
On Sept. 19, 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 Greene and Richard Lipan cast the yes votes.
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 on Oct. 3 how representatives of the church knew to prepare a statement ahead of the Sept. 19 meeting.
Snider stated 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 at that meeting.
“People talk,” Henry said.
On Tuesday, however, Pouliot told The Advertiser it was he who reached out to the church on Sept. 13 – six days before the meeting of the council vote, and three days before Snider said Dietzel “asked if he could get a copy” and the agenda was supposedly available to the public.
Pouliot said church representatives contacted him in June after news of Romain’s plans broke. They asked what was happening and if they could be alerted ahead of time to when the microdistillery would be on the agenda.
When Pouliot received a draft agenda for review on Sept. 13, he said he gave church officials notice the same day.
“That is what I believe is my responsibility to the people of this community when they ask me a question…to answer that question and tell them how the public process works,” Pouliot said.
“I replied to their inquiry,” Pouliot said. “In all honesty, why wouldn’t I do that with anyone in the community?”
Romain said he believes other issues factored in.
“I think the town is aware of the mayor’s position on alcohol,” Romain said. “He has stood in the way of a few businesses. What I was unaware of is the length he was willing to go.
“What went on behind my back should be a red flag to other business leaders…he just did not like my idea for the town.”
The day after alerting church members, the Caro City Council went to Mackinac Island for the Michigan Municipal League Convention, which took place Sept. 14-16.
Caro City Council members seem to agree it was a topic of discussion amongst them throughout the conference, though there is debate over the extent to which it was discussed.
Greene said Monday and Tuesday that it was discussed in-depth at dinner settings. Greene also flat out accused Henry of “making plans to try and get other people to come and kill this.”
“You and Mr. Pouliot were talking about it constantly and not including others” Greene said to Henry Monday. “And you knew it was on the agenda and we never saw the agenda before.”
Pouliot said it was discussed more in passing and informally. Pouliot also said that while at the Mackinac conference, he asked Olson a specific question about the entertainment aspect of Romain’s plans.
The Advertiser asked Pouliot why the Sept. 19 vote wasn’t tabled when there were clearly such detailed questions days before the meeting.
“That’s a valid point,” he said.
Meanwhile, Romain said he was preparing for something quite different to happen at the Sept. 19 meeting.
Romain said he was contacted by former City Manager Jared Olson on Sept. 2.
Olson invited Romain to present his idea under the guise of being the “Business Spotlight” for Sept. 19 – a section of the meeting during which businesses and nonprofits often present themselves on an informational-only basis.
An email obtained by The Advertiser shows the manner in which Romain was invited to the meeting.
“Any way that you could make that meeting and be the City Councils (sic) Business Spotlight?” Olson said in an email to Romain. “The council usually reserves five to ten minutes for a new business to come in and explain their business, backgrounds, goals, and sometimes answer any questions that the board may have.
“Along with you being the business spotlight, you could also stick around in case they have any questions on the two resolutions that you need.”
Romain said Tuesday that because of the way it was presented he didn’t expect any board action at the meeting.
On Oct. 3, Henry defended the overall action of the council taken on Sept. 19, blaming Romain for not being prepared to answer detailed questions about wastewater, fire suppression, and other technical aspects of the plan.
Henry said the council was “forced” to vote the way it did because council members didn’t have enough information “to make an educated decision.”
Pouliot said Tuesday that it “would’ve helped” if Olson had better handled the plans. He also explained that Romain’s proposal represents “unchartered territory” for the council, which typically sees plans after they have been through the city’s planning commission.
“Knowing the governing body, information up front would’ve been critical,” Pouliot said.
Greene said Monday it should’ve never happened this way.
Instead, he said the council should’ve approved the recommendation and left the determination of how close the microdistillery would have been to a church up to the state’s Liquor Control Commission. If they had determined it was within the limits, Greene said, the state would have reached out to representatives of the affected church and they would have had 15 days to respond.
Further, Greene said, forming a committee to handle Romain’s plans sets a dangerous precedent.
“Once we set up this committee, we’re saying any new business that wants to come to town will have to come before this committee,” Greene said.
“We have nothing to hang our hat on…it’s discrimination,” Greene said.
Pouliot said Tuesday that it’s “unfortunate” how the handling of Romain’s project has caused a rift among council and the community.
“Nobody sits at that table to cause hardships, divisiveness, or animosity, or hurt people and somehow that’s happened,” Pouliot said. “Any of that is wrong and that’s unfortunate.
“I respect and appreciate and love this community and I’m a stakeholder in this community,” he said. “And right now, it hasn’t been good for the community and that’s unfortunate.”
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org