This is the empty building that is being eyed for a new distillery in Athens. It’s located behind Miller’s Chicken on Athens’ West Side. 

A distillery could be coming to Athens’ West Side if some local property and business owners are successful in petitioning city government to change the zoning of the area.

West End Cider House owners Kelly Sauber and Deanna Schwartz recently purchased a warehouse building on the West Side, not far away from the Cider House, with the intent of moving Fifth Element Distillery (also owned by the couple) from Meigs County to Athens County.

However, until the zoning in the area is changed, or until Sauber obtains a variance from the city’s zoning code, the distillery can’t be moved into the building. Sauber applied for a permit to open the distillery in the building at 237 W. State St. recently, and was denied Sept. 14 by the city because a distillery is not a “permissible use” in the area as it’s currently zoned.

Sauber said Monday that he’s hoping to petition the city to change the zoning of the area surrounding the building. That swathe of Athens – which encompasses business and manufacturing uses including Miller’s Chicken, guitar supply business Stewart-MacDonald, and Mother Earth Community Thrift Store  – is currently zoned R-3, for residential uses only. The area was originally zoned for manufacturing and business uses, but the zoning designation was changed by the city to allow the University Commons housing complex to be built nearby.

Fifth Element’s owners and Steve Radcliff, operator of the Stewart-MacDonald building, both said in interviews this week that the city changing the zoning of the area back to allow manufacturing and business uses just makes sense. The potential distillery building – which originally housed Electric Motor Services of Athens and is located behind Miller’s Chicken – is surrounded by other business and manufacturing-purposed buildings, and has been for a long while, Sauber said.

“I think in the long run the West Side can just become more and more vibrant and just be an area that sustains small industry,” said Sauber, who is a West Side Athens resident. Sauber said that at this point, it doesn’t make sense to keep the “residential” zoning of the area because of how many businesses are currently operating at that spot.

Radcliff agreed.

“I think… the zoning for those parcels should reflect their (current) usage,” Radcliff said.

Sauber said changing the zoning would fit multiple parts of Athens’ comprehensive master plan. Specifically:

• The plan calls for the city to define areas where lighter industrial development or redevelopment could occur, and notes that the Athens County Fairgrounds nearby could be an attractive spot for that to happen. It also notes the city should closely cater to the demand for commercial property space within the city limits instead of allowing further sprawl outward.

• The comprehensive plan calls for the city to encourage and “successfully develop” unique local businesses. Sauber said that Athens is becoming a destination spot for craft alcohol with three local breweries and the Cider House.

“This can be a huge draw for tourism within the city and a great form of economic development,” Sauber said. 

Sauber and Schwartz purchased the old Electric Motor Services building earlier this month for about $265,000.

If the area is rezoned, Sauber will move the production facilities located at the West End Cider House to the new building. A drawing accompanying the permit application to the city also shows a possible restaurant and shop located inside the building, but Sauber said he will focus first on building the production facilities.

Fifth Element crafts gin, vodka, brandy and other alcoholic beverages, some of which are sold on local store shelves and at the West End Cider House.

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