By LIBBY CUDMORE • The Freeman’s Journal & Hometown Oneonta
COOPERSTOWN – With five years of success behind it, the Cooperstown Distillery is looking ahead and planning to more than double the size of its plant on Railroad Avenue.
“We outgrew our space many years ago,” proprietor Gene Marra told the Village Board on Monday, March 25. “Our production has been limited by our physical space.”
The planned 7,500-square-foot expansion will more than double the building’s existing footprint on the back portion of their Railroad Avenue lot, adding a “rackhouse” for storing barrels of whiskey and bourbon, as well as second-floor production space.
“We want to make more whiskey, more bourbon,” said Marra, who asked for a received the trustees’ blessing for a $60,000 grant needed to bolster the $400,000 project. “They are the silver lining in the distilling world.”
Marra opened the distillery – Otsego County’s first, and still its only one – in October 2013. Since then, it has won more than 50 gold medals. In 2015, he opened the Cooperstown Beverage Exchange in the former Augur’s Bookstore at Main and Pioneer, and his Spitball cinnamon whiskey was featured in the Wall Street Journal.
The grant application calls for the creation of low- to moderate-income jobs.
Otsego Now CEO Jody Zakrevsky, who accompanied Marra, said the jobs wouldn’t require a college degree. Though the grant will cover four employees, Marra believes the expansion will create as many as 10 jobs.
“You can’t run this with just four people,” he said.
In addition to expand production and storage space, the project would also increase on-site parking for employees.
As a Community Development Block Grant, only municipalities can apply for the funds, which they would then disperse to the business, which Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh said was a daunting task. “When I first received this email from Gene, I thought this was something we could endorse, but we don’t have the staff to write or process this grant.
But Zakrevsky had an answer – the Village can also designate an organization like Otsego Now to handle the grant on their behalf.
“We just did a successful grant for Custom Electronics in Oneonta,” said Zakrevsky. “the Town received the grant, and we administered it on behalf of the town. You could do the same with us.”
During his tenure, Otsego Now has put together 40 such applications, and is currently working on another application for the county to launch a feasibility study on whether the business park in Richfield Springs could support Ruby Lake Glass, Andela and a third building, as well as expanded water and sewer.
Marra said he had plans to go before the Village’s Zoning Board of Appeals with his plans, as well as submit a project outline. From there, the board can decide on whether or not to submit for “pre-approval” from the state. If the state authorizes the initial plan, a full application for the funding can be put together.
The village unanimously approved giving him a “pre-pre-approval,” meaning they would like to see a project narrative, a preliminary budget and a report on the job creation prospects. From there, they will submit a “pre-application” to Small Cities, which oversees the grants.
If they feel the project has merit, Marra, Otsego Now and the Village will be invited to submit a full application.
“It has to be a good application or I won’t submit it,” said Zekrevsky. “It’s my reputation.”
But, Trustee Richard Sternberg joked, they want to see – or rather, taste – the end results of their investment. “Don’t you think we should know a little more about your project?” he teased.