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Planning Commission—MillWorks plan faces resistance

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Kerry Scheuner was looking forward to finally expanding the business she and her husband, Hajo, started at MillWorks nine years ago.

After overcoming challenges with former partners and reopening following a 10-month closure, the Scheuners had a bank loan, and a plan, to expand their small craft distillery’s tasting room and offerings at the industrial park.

But the company, S&G Artisan Distillery, will be leaving their space at the end of the year after lease negotiations with the property’s new owners broke down in recent weeks.

“We’re very disappointed,” Kerry Scheuner said this week. “We feel let down.”

Offers have since come in to S&G to lease space outside of the village, but it’s not the same, according to Scheuner, who lives in town with her husband.

“That’s what makes us sad — we can’t stay and operate our business in Yellow Springs,” she said.

Although Scheuner was the distillery’s sole employee, they were hoping to hire a few employees in the new tasting room, as well as to increase production to meet the demand they have been struggling to keep up with in recent years.

“It continued to grow and grow. The business has been paying itself for the past four years,” she said.

Scheuner was not taking a salary, and her husband was continuing to work full time elsewhere, she added.

The property’s new owners see it differently. The distillery’s expansion would limit the growth of the next door tenant, Yellow Springs Brewery, according to co-owner Jessica Yamamoto this week. After reviewing S&G’s plans, it made more sense to rent that specific space to the brewery, which she believes has demonstrated the demand for its products.

“As a landlord, I have to decide what makes sense, not just for the community, but for the property, and this was a big risk,” she said of the distillery’s plans.

Yamamoto’s offer of a separate space in MillWorks was declined, according to  Scheuner, because they would have had to apply for new federal and state permits. The Scheuner’s then declined the option for a four-year lease on their current space, according to Yamamoto.

Yamamoto also cited the distillery’s plans to run a nightclub until 1 a.m., which she didn’t see as a “good fit” for the property, although Scheuner denied that was ever their intention.

In the end, it was a business decision, with an eye towards who would bring more jobs to the site, Yamamoto said.

“I have to decide which business I am going to help to expand” she said, referencing the limited space at the park. “They hadn’t shown they could employ people, while the brewery has 40 people,” she said, and 20 of them are employed full time.

The departure of the distillery is one of several concerns that arose over the week after MillWorks’ owners released their plans for the four-acre business center on N. Walnut Street. 

Those plans faced vocal opposition at Planning Commission’s regular meeting last week as the body considered a zoning change to allow for a greater mix of uses at the site, including residences, a museum and a hostel.

Villagers and neighbors also raised concerns about insufficient parking, an uptick in area traffic, water runoff, visitors becoming a nuisance and the planned departure of EnviroFlight, which has produced insect-based plant feed at the site for a decade and employs 22 people.

Yamamoto and her husband, Antonio Molina, purchased the longtime industrial facility for $1.15 million last fall, at the same time moving to the village. In addition to renovating the existing 48,000 square feet of buildings into maker spaces, community kitchens, a children’s museum, a brewery and a new distillery, they want to build new artist lofts, art studios and a hostel on the acre that fronts Fairfield Pike.

Ahead of the meeting, the owners withdrew their proposal for a “flex space” that was to be used for theater productions, trade shows, performances and demonstrations, citing community resistance and parking limitations.

In the end, Planning Commission could not recommend that Council approve the PUD preliminary plan because the project failed to garner the necessary three votes on a single required qualification related to “heath, safety and welfare.”

In explaining her vote on the matter, Planning Commission member Marianne MacQueen cited the impact of losing two local businesses.

Although MacQueen earlier thought approval would be a “slam dunk,” the testimony of citizens gave her pause about the project, which she also said could be seen as gentrification, because it improved “lower-scale” spaces.

“The idea of creating a PUD to increase the business at the expense of some good businesses is very concerning to me,” MacQueen said.

The ultimate decision to rezone the property rests with Village Council, which will take up the matter at its next regular meeting on Monday, March 4.

As it weighs the proposal, Council will take into consideration the concerns of Planning Commission members and the commission’s request that the Village complete studies on traffic, pedestrian safety, noise and storm water before voting.

The commission additionally suggested that Council consider ways to mitigate negative impacts on residential areas, such as adding fencing.

The Planning Commission consists of chair Frank Doden, Council liaison MacQueen, AJ Williams, Dino Pallotta and Ted Donnell. Donnell recused himself from the discussion and voting because he is the architect on the MillWorks project.

EnviroFlight concerns

Among the concerns Planning Commission heard were those centered on the possible departure of its largest tenant, EnviroFlight, which currently leases 20,000 square feet at the park. 

Resident Colton Pitstick shared his perspective as an EnviroFlight employee  worried about the future of his job. Pitstick, a Yellow Spring High School graduate who is also a playwright and actor, criticized the plan for its focus on tourism at the expense of good-paying jobs such as his as an insect farmer.

“If you want to support artists, give them health insurance, give them access to good-paying jobs,” Pitstick said. “Hostels and restaurants provide employment, but they fall short of enough to get by.”

Pitstick added that he believes the plan is geared towards the wealthy at the expense of the working class, and visitors at the expense of local artists.

“This isn’t about filling the needs of the community. This plan is about building a playground for the elite,” Pitstick said.

EnviroFlight President Liz Koutsos said at the meeting that the company had planned to maintain its Yellow Springs facility, the company’s original location, as a research and development site, after opening a commercial-scale facility in Kentucky last year. She added that currently the firm pays local taxes on its $1.8 million payroll, more than $300,000 in utilities payments and more than $17,000 in direct taxes. 

“We had no intention of leaving and now we will be taking those 22 jobs with benefits to a new location,” Koutsos said.

Matthew Kirk also cited concerns about displacing current businesses, including one of the town’s “homegrown” successes, EnviroFlight, while hampering the ability to incubate new medium-size firms. 

“This space is one of the few industrial zones in the village,” Kirk said. “We just don’t have space that is raw and relatively inexpensive,” he added, criticizing turning the property from one “vital to our economic success” to one “that just feeds more into the tourist culture.” 

“When I look up there I don’t see a lot of jobs that come with the hostel or the artist studios,” Kirk said.

MillWorks owners and EnviroFlight are currently in negotiations about a lease, Yamamoto said this week, declining to be more specific about the company’s prospects at MillWorks. The current lease runs through Dec. 2021.

Previously, Yamamoto told the News that EnviroFlight did not immediately express interest in renewing their lease and that because other tenants were looking to expand, the owners decided to not include them in the property’s future. 

Yamamoto added this week that it was worrisome for a single occupant to occupy such a large portion of the property, especially since “commercial space isn’t as desirable as it once was” with the growth of companies like Amazon.

In addition, she has cited concerns from neighbors and MillWorks tenants about odor, noise and the presence of the bugs from EnviroFlight’s production in their space.

Even with the loss of EnviroFlight, Yamamoto calculates that her plan would bring more jobs to the facility compared to how many are currently employed. Those jobs would be as receptionists, teachers and managers at the maker spaces, hostel and science museum, in property management and maintenance, and in various roles at the brewery and a new distillery, an entirely separate venture of a different YS resident, Yamamoto wrote in an email.

Other concerns

Other community concerns at the Planning Commission meeting centered on noise, nuisance, traffic, stormwater runoff and pedestrian safety.

Tim McLinden, who lives on N. Walnut Street, is most worried about visitors wandering on his property, and said he would likely have to invest in a fence to keep them out. Under the new plan, his property would abut parking spaces and dumpsters.

“It may be a wonderful thing for the neighborhood. It may be a wonderful thing to the village. We don’t anticipate it will be a wonderful thing to us,” he said of the plans. 

Neighbors Jon Hudson, Alex Melamed, Chris Hudson, Melissa Heston and Michele Burns focused on the potential for the plan to worsen area traffic. Both N. Walnut Street, a narrow street with parking permitted along both sides, and Fairfield Pike, a fast-traveled route with a one-lane bridge underpass, were cited.

Another neighbor, Rosanne Duffoe, cited concerns about “hostel culture” and an attendant increase in crime. Heston added her worries over the transient nature of hostel visitors and brought up stormwater runoff as another issue. Overall, she sees the property as “pushing into residential areas.”

But not all comments during the public hearing were critical. 

Richard Lapedes, a local sculptor who has a studio at MillWorks, expressed excitement to see a unified vision for the property around maker spaces, and new owners who are bringing “fresh energy, young energy and smart energy.”

“It’s a place where people who make things — crafters, artists — can make community and a home, and we all need it.” Lapedes said of the vision. He is optimistic about whom the artistic opportunities might attract.

“It’s a place where visitors can interact, not only with each other and villagers, but with the things that mark our community as different from the rest of the county,” Lapedes said.

Amy Magnus, who plans to open the children’s science museum, said she sees opportunity not just in her new venture, but also in MillWorks as a site for new startups.

Downtown business owner Sam Eckenrode suggested that the village work towards a mutually beneficial situation and encouraged the community to be proactive, not reactive, to change.

“If we want progress, we have to be progressive, and we have to find ways to work together so we can find the win-wins,” she said.

Owner responds

Yamamoto has been somewhat surprised about the opposition to the project, she said this week. In addition to hearing concerns at the meeting, she held an intense three-hour discussion of around 20 people at the Emporium on Sunday.

The way Yamamoto sees it, the couple is bringing new energy to a site that could be more accessible to villagers. 

“Our vision for the MillWorks property is that we bring it to life,” she said.

Yamamoto praised the previous property owners for “making something out of nothing” with the current incarnation of MillWorks, which had been a cannery and seed company. 

“They took risks believing in companies,” Yamamoto said. “They offered low rent to help companies get established — that’s not something everyone could do. They should be given an award for what they did.”

Now, Yamamoto believes the path to MillWorks’ future starts with building on the success of Yellow Springs Brewery and reorienting the site as “a place for people to gather.”

“There’s more opportunity for people to come and hang out, to stay, to engage in the community,” Yamamoto said of her plans.

Responding to concerns at the Planning Commission meeting about potentially detracting business from downtown, Yamamoto spoke of the property as a supplement to the central business district.

“I think it will be a great symbiotic relationship,” Yamamoto said later of the park and downtown. “I think it’s going to add value.”

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