The Whitesburg City Council voted four to three Tuesday night to clear the way for a new moonshine distillery that will be located downtown.
The council voted during a special meeting to change the lease on the old KYVA Motor Company building that had restricted the building being used for the manufacture or sale of alcohol. Whitesburg Mayor James Wiley Craft told observers in a packed council chamber at City Hall that Letcher County businessman Colin Futz had asked the council to revisit the lease last week. Craft said he scheduled the special meeting instead so that anyone who wanted to state a position on the matter would be free to do so.
The vote to amend the lease was initially a tie, with the yes votes being Councilman James Bates, who made the motion to remove the clause, Councilman Tom Sexton, who seconded the motion by Bates, and Councilman Larry Everidge. After council members Robin Bowen- Watco, Earlene Williams, and Sheila Shortt voted no, Mayor Craft broke the tie with his yes vote.
Some opponents of the distillery said it would be located too close to the Whitesburg First Baptist Church, which also is located on Madison Avenue.
Craft, noting that mayors usually do not vote in council matters except in the event of a tie, said he is a member of the Baptist Church, but feels it is the duty of an elected officials to put aside his or her own beliefs and prejudices and cast their vote to reflect the will of their constituents. The citizens of Whitesburg voted overwhelmingly to approve alcohol sales in a 2007 local option election and Craft said he felt it was his duty to continue to represent the bidding of the citizens.
The chamber erupted into applause when Craft announced his vote, reflecting the fact that the majority of those who spoke during the meeting favored allowing the change to the lease.
As the meeting began, Craft asked Fultz to speak first to explain his request, and Fultz asked the audience for a show of hands by those in favor of the request or against a distillery in Whitesburg. No more than three or four people held their hands up against the change.
Fultz told the audience his plan is to manufacture legal moonshine using locally grown ingredients and that he would purchase fruits and berries from local farmers and people who pick wild berries. He said he also intends to have a gift shop on the site that will sell locally made products. Fultz said he envisions selling locally made souvenirs and is willing to work with crafters and others wishing to sell their handiwork there.
Futz also said it is not his intention to have a bar, adding that the distillery will sell most of its products to distributors. He added that state law specifies that up to two 750-milliliter containers of whisky can be sold to a customer. Fultz said he sees the venture as a great opportunity for the city and hopes to make it into a complete tourist attraction as well as a distillery. He added that Whitesburg has already voted to be wet anyway.
“ I don’t see that the alcohol part is an issue,” said Fultz.
David Narramore, who chairs the Letcher County Tourism Commission, handed out letters from the commission stating that Mr. Fultz had made a lengthy presentation to commission members and had answered all their questions to the commission’s satisfaction The letter stated that the commission strongly encouraged the city to go back and re-visit the issue as soon as possible in order to move the venture forward because it is a rare opportunity when a young businessman is willing to re-invest in his community. The letter finished by saying, “It is the charge of the tourism commission to promote Letcher County and its attractions.”
Beekeeper Tom Ratliff, who sells Uncle Tom’s Honey, said he believes the distillery is a great idea and that he would like to sell his honey there. Ratliff said he has also been approached by the planned Alltech distillery at Pikeville to provide honey for its products. Ratliff said that he is unable to fill the distillery’s needs on his own, but has been working through other Kentucky beekeepers to put together enough honey to satisfy Alltech’s needs.
Ryan Adams spoke in favor of the distillery, saying that it would continued the positive movement seen in Whitesburg in the past few years. He said he recently met a woman who had travelled from Washington, D.C. to Summit City in Whitesburg just to see the national touring band The Rival Sons and has met others there who have come long distances to see other performing artists.
Whitesburg businessman Robert Lewis also spoke in favor of allowing the distillery to go forward. Lewis said he had grown up in Whitesburg and knows Fultz. He added that moonshine is part of the local heritage and said he doesn’t see any negatives to the venture. Lewis said his pastor had told him he doesn’t oppose the idea and the gift shop is a fine opportunity as well.
“Colin will do it the right way,” said Lewis. “We don’t want to miss out on the opportunity.”
Whitesburg resident Marsha Banks told the council she also supports the distillery and believes that tourism is the last hope for improving the eastern Kentucky economy. Banks said that people from outside the region already know Whitesburg because of Appalshop, as well as from musical performances at Summit City and Streetside Bar and Grill. She also said it is an excellent opportunity to see the historic KYVA building improved and put to a good use.
“To turn our back on this would send the wrong message,” said Banks.
Only two people spoke against the change. Fred Hall said he thought it was a bad idea to change the lease to permit the production of alcohol. Whitesburg attorney Gene Smallwood said that putting the distillery in such close proximity to two churches whose core beliefs oppose the consumption of alcohol was analogous to putting a hog lot across from a mosque or a synagogue.
Smallwood also asked if the city had a financial stake in the venture. Craft said it did not. Smallwood then asked if the city had offered a reduced rent to Fultz. Craft replied that it had, but that Fultz had also agreed to complete an extensive remodeling of the old building, which he said is a common practice in a situation when a property requires a great deal of work.
The KYVA Motors building was seen as unfit for habitation several years ago when the Letcher County Conservation District asked that it be demolished so it could put its offices on the site. Craft then led a successful effort to save the building.