Entrepreneur and Caro native Scott Romain has taken his plans for a rum microdistillery/restaurant in downtown Caro off the table – along with the $1.2 million investment it represented.
Romain made the move Wednesday, about 30 minutes into an ad hoc committee meeting in Caro about his idea for Thumb Rum & Brew (a rum microdistillery) and associated restaurant, The Destination.
Committee members were Mike Henry, pro-tem mayor, Caro City Councilman Joe Greene, Richard Lipan, Brian Rickwalt, Caro Fire Department Chief Randy Heckroth, and Scott Romain.
The committee was holding its first meeting exactly one month after the Caro City Council voted 5-2 against recommending the project receive the necessary liquor licenses from the state because it was too close to a church (though council members subsequently backtracked to say there were “other reasons” and they were “forced” to vote).
Wednesday’s meeting didn’t last long.
“I’d like to make a motion to dissolve this committee and stop the project,” Romain said. “I appreciate everyone’s time, I appreciate all the thought and effort that was put in here, I apologize for the shortcomings I had coming in, I wish I had more information for you, but I am canceling the project.”
After a groundswell of support for Romain – and overwhelming amount of scorn for officials – from the public, the Caro City Council formed the committee at its Oct. 17 meeting to re-evaluate the plan and reconsider its initial vote.
From the get-go, Wednesday’s meeting was contentious, particularly from committee and Caro City Council members Mike Henry and Brian Rickwalt (appointed earlier this year to fill a vacancy).
It was the last straw for Romain.
“I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth this whole process,” he said after he had withdrawn his idea. “I just don’t think this is right for this town, right now.”
As mayor pro tem, Henry started the meeting, but after just a few minutes Greene spoke up and asked the committee to appoint a chairman.
Lipan motioned that Greene be named chair, Greene seconded.
Before there was any discussion – let alone a vote – Rickwalt made another motion to name Henry the chairman of the committee.
“We need to take care of this motion first,” Henry said.
A vote was taken and Greene was appointed chairman of the committee by a vote of 4-2 with Henry and Rickwalt casting the no votes.
Henry yielded the chairman’s position to Greene though it wouldn’t matter for long.
After a relatively brief public comment period during which several spoke in favor of the project moving forward, the committee turned to its own discussion.
The first item discussed dealt with the entertainment aspect of Romain’s plan.
“My question is what is the plan, because you told us you didn’t have any space for it outside,” Henry said.
Henry and Rickwalt seemed to not comprehend the notion of outdoor entertainment or anything else happening on the roof of the building – though such offerings are wildly popular and a big draw in other parts of the state during warmer weather months.
In fact, trendy magazines such as Hour Detroit put together annual lists of places that offer rooftop options.
“We were told when we asked that question…outdoor entertainment, on the roof,” Rickwalt said to Romain. “That was the answer we got, at our first meeting, when we said no.
“So, when we asked, the answer was ‘on the roof.’ Is that logical? No.”
“You’re telling me whatever happened…if I had that idea, and I did that, that’s not logical?” Romain said.
“Well are you gonna build an elevator?” Rickwalt said.
“If I had to,” Romain said.
“Is the roof structure going to support the weight?” Rickwalt said.
“It can be changed,” Romain said. (Listen to the exchange by pushing play below. Story continues under audio clip)
As The Advertiser reported in January, Rickwalt has owned Rickwalt Building Solutions L.L.C. in Caro since 2009, and before that, he worked for other construction companies in Midland and Saginaw.
Rickwalt served as president of the Home Builders Association of the Thumb in 2013 and 2014.
As the discussion of the rooftop entertainment option continued, Rickwalt and Henry continued to throw a barrage of detailed engineering questions at Romain.
Rickwalt also took issue with the fact that he had just received a copy of Romain’s general business plan, though Romain said he provided it to former Caro City Manager Jared Olson in March.
“If we woulda got this a month or two ago, it coulda saved us a lot a trouble,” Rickwalt said smiling at Romain.
“Is this fun for you?” Romain asked him.
Rickwalt responded by saying “years ago” he attended council meetings to voice opposition “to something that was being developed” as a concerned citizen.
“I bought a house in this community, I grew up in this community, just like you, but I’ve lived in city limits my whole life and I wanted to do good for this town,” Rickwalt said. “So do not think that this is fun for me, cause I don’t have to be here.”
“I don’t have to, either,” Romain said.
Greene tried to reel it back in by pointing out that matters such as engineering should be reviewed by city’s planning commission and that the committee should focus on the issue of the liquor licenses.
According to Greene, former city manager Jared Olson said the planning commission would get involved later, adding it didn’t make sense for the developer to spend the money on engineering and blueprints if he wasn’t sure he would be getting liquor licenses.
Heckroth said he had spoken with engineers at Rowe Engineering, who said they originally told Olson it didn’t have to go to the planning commission until after the licenses were secured.
“However, after relooking at everything, their suggestion for me tonight would be to go to the planning commission,” he said. “They believe that’s where this should go to get this back on track…”
Heckroth told the committee that Rowe Engineering representatives recommended Romain submit a “plot plan,” that generally shows how the building would be used to fit current zoning.
However, Rickwalt insisted Romain should file a complete site plan, which is much more detailed – and expensive.
“If (outdoor entertainment) is going to remain on the (liquor license) application, then it should have a site plan,” he said.
“I disagree,” Greene said.
Bill Bortel, Caro planning commission member, was in the audience and pointed out that the council could approve the licenses with a contingency tied to planning commission approval.
That way, Romain could move forward with the project, he said.
“Now, you still can do that, but it’s going to take a long time to get this done. That’s the only thing,” Bortel said. “You can approve the licenses pretty simple. It’s not (city council’s) role to decide there are going to be certain endeavors that are done. That’s the planning commission.”
“But how does that help him decide if he’s going to move forward?” Henry asked.
Greene answered simply: “He’s not gun-shy about spending money.”
However, a few minutes later, Romain made his motion to dissolve the committee and stop the project.
Several in attendance pleaded with him to reconsider.
“Jared Olson and Mark Bauerschmidt (former Caro DDA chairman) are the ones who got me to have this plan, to buy the building, to push this forward. They both resigned. I don’t know why they resigned, but it happened right after the last meeting,” Romain said. “The community does want this and they are behind me 110 percent.”
Romain said he attended the meeting because he said he would “give it a shot.”
“The anger and attitudes and everything is the same as it was a meeting ago, as it was at the meeting before that,” Romain said.
“There are other cities that have bent over backwards and got me all the information without me even asking and I’m still here trying to prove myself to you guys,” he said.
“At this time, at this place, this project is not going in that building downtown,” he said.
Vicki Leland, Caro resident and supporter of the project, spoke to Romain during the final public comment.
“Scott, thank you for bringing optimism to the city, and to the citizens,” she said. “I think one of the things that’s very important to understand is that there was so much initial negativity from the guiding lights here, that I’m not surprised that you’re set back.
“But the citizens wanted you here, and we really thought it was going to be an exciting, positive thing,” she said.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org