RAVENSWOOD - A company dropped its plans for a distillery in Ravenswood for another site in Jackson County, and the Ravenswood mayor says zoning codes and a petition drive against it are responsible.
The city of Ravenswood in May approved a business application from Appalachian Mountain Distillery for a production facility and retail store in the former Cope's Supermarket at 1101 Washington St. where it would produce a legal form of moonshine. The project was being spearheaded by Dwayne Freeman, who is listed as the vice president of the distillery in documents filed with the secretary of state.
A petition opposed the distillery, which organizers said would be located near homes and churches.
Ravenswood Mayor Michael Ihle said the company's decision to move the facility elsewhere was, in part, a result of the city's own zoning ordinance.
"At the most recent council meeting, approximately 10 citizens expressed their opposition to the distillery," he said. "Among the litany of complaints was one that, according to the city's own zoning ordinance, the proposed site was zoned incorrectly."
At the time, the mayor was advised by the city's legal counsel that he was within his power as mayor to pull the permit if he found that claim to be true. Ihle informed the public of this at the meeting.
"Later that week, I investigated the claim and found it to be true," the mayor said. "The distillery had expressed that it would be a wholesaler; article 11 of the city's zoning ordinance states that such properties are to be zoned as light industrial. The property is currently zoned restricted-residential/commercial."
Ihle informed Freeman of his findings and that the company had the right to file an appeal with the city and request a variance with the Board of Zoning Appeals. If the board approved it, Freeman would be permitted to operate the distillery.
The mayor said Freeman considered his options, but called back and said some in the company were tired of the drama brought by some in the community against them wanting to locate in Ravenswood.
"They feared that if this got resolved, something else would come up," Ihle said. "Despite my reassurance to the contrary, he informed me the company would be going to Plan B, which is a site in Fairplain, just a couple miles outside Ripley."
Repeated attempts to contact Freeman have been unsuccessful.
The operation would have been next door to the Independent United Brethren Church, 1014 Washington St.
It wasn't anything personal against Freeman, said Ronald E. Hensley Jr., who started the petition against the business. Hensley is a member of the church.
As a Christian, Hensley said, he didn't want to see alcoholic beverage sold across from his church.
"I just wanted to make a stand against it," he said.
Hensley said he hasn't received an official notification of the business move, other than what he has read on social media sources.
"If it's true, thank the good Lord," Hensley said.
Ihle is upset over the lost of business development.
"I find the loss of this potential new, unique, job-creating, revenue-generating business to be heartbreaking," he said.
Although he will defend the right of fellow citizens to express their views, Ihle said a small, irate minority prevented this business from coming to Ravenswood.
The mayor has repeatedly expounded how Ravenswood is a great place to do business.
"It is a great location, but I fear that the actions of a few have made me into a liar, and how Christian is that?" Ihle asked. "I would love to see some of those who killed this distillery put aside their negative energy and instead try something positive. How about they open a Christian business, such as a Bible book store? I would gladly support that."
Ihle believes the majority of residents in Ravenswood supported the distillery. If the city's business base is going to survive, attitude changes are needed, he said.
"If there is not a culture change here soon, the revenue base of this city is going to worsen," he said. "Then, the same people who opposed this distillery will rise in opposition to fee increases."