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Being a good neighbor

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Maker’s Mark CEO Rob Samuels said the distillery wants to be a ‘good neighbor’ but Loretto residents want him to prove it

By Stevie Lowery

Maker’s Mark Distillery describes itself as Loretto’s “slice of heaven.”
But, some residents in Loretto would strongly disagree with that description.
All they see is black from the “warehouse fungus” that’s growing on their homes, cars, lawns, patio furniture, road signs, etc. And the news of Maker’s Mark expanding and building more warehouses (although we’re not sure where yet) is alarming for many residents, to say the least.
Maker’s Mark CEO Rob Samuels spoke at a joint meeting between the Marion County Fiscal Court and the Lebanon City Council on Dec. 21 about the distillery’s future plans to build 10 more warehouses. Maker’s Mark is asking the county for industrial revenue bonds to build the additional warehouses, which the county did for the distillery in 2012 when additional warehouses were built in Loretto. If the county approves the agreement, Suntory Holdings Ltd. (Maker’s Mark’s parent company) would receive $495 million in industrial bonds to be used for the construction of warehouses, which means the company wouldn’t pay property taxes on the new warehouses or the barrels stored inside them for 30 years.
But, the $495 million question is, where are those warehouses going to be built?
If the county approves the industrial revenue bonds, Maker’s Mark plans to begin building the warehouses in 2019, Samuels said. But he wouldn’t clarify where.
“I can’t get too particular about where specifically we are going to build or invest in land,” he said at the Dec. 21 meeting. “But, we’ve made an offer and are willing to pay above market for land in Marion County that is secluded in nature with very little development around it.”
Loretto native Diane Mattingly, who attended the December meeting, is very concerned about additional warehouses being built in Loretto.
“We don’t want any more of those warehouses in our town,” she said. “We’re covered in black already.”
Mattingly helped start the group “Citizens for the Beautification of Loretto, Kentucky,” which includes Loretto residents who are concerned and upset about the fungus that is now growing on their homes, cars, road signs, etc.
According to Samuels, Maker’s Mark wants to be a “good neighbor,” but many of the residents of Loretto don’t believe that to be the case. In their eyes, if that were true, Maker’s Mark would be helping rid the city of the black warehouse fungus, as well as investing in the city to make it more picturesque for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who drive through Loretto every year on their way to the distillery. Right now, many residents feel that Loretto has been ignored by the distillery. Loretto is “just a road to get there,” so to speak.  And, now, that road and everything near it is turning black from the warehouse fungus.
Allegedly, technology exists that can help with the fungus, which germinates on ethanol, the colorless alcohol that can evaporate during maturation, making the area around distillery warehouses a prime breeding ground. The installation of technology, known as a thermal oxidizer, extracts the ethanol from the air in the maturation process and costs an estimated $180,000 per warehouse to be installed.
William McMurry, a Kentucky lawyer who is leading a class action against three bourbon producers, was quoted in The Independent, a London newspaper, saying that the expense to install the technology is “a drop in the ocean for the whiskey industry.”
“But it has got its head in the sand,” he added. “They do not want to be good corporate citizens until people affected by this require them to do so.”
However, there are people who would argue that trying to fix this fungus problem is too expensive, even for a multi-billion dollar company. Those same people would also say that the black fungus can be washed off of homes, cars, etc., and that the residents of Loretto and Marion County should be overjoyed to call itself home to the distillery in the first place. They would go on to say that residents should be even more elated that the distillery wants to continue expanding here. And, while I’m not a bourbon connoisseur, I fully understand that the distillery contributes significantly to the local economy, provides good paying jobs, donates substantial amounts of money to local charities and non-profits and attracts tourists from all over the world year after year after year. I, for one, have been extremely impressed with the improvements that have been made at the distillery, itself. It truly is a beautifully manicured place, and it’s definitely a unique tourist attraction. The Chihuly art exhibit that Maker’s had last year was exquisite, and gave local people a chance to see blown glass art by renowned artist Dale Chihuly that they may never have had a chance to see otherwise.
But, with that said, I can also understand the frustration and anger that many Loretto residents feel. Before these additional warehouses were built in Loretto, they didn’t have this fungus problem. And, from their perspective, it doesn’t seem like Maker’s Mark really cares about the fungus problem.
Maker’s Mark CEO Rob Samuels said the distillery wants to be a “good neighbor.”
Well, with all due respect, Mr. Samuels, the residents of Loretto want you to prove it.
In my opinion, when tourists drive through the City of Loretto on their way to Maker’s Mark, the city should emulate what the distillery looks like. The city should be an extension of the distillery, so to speak. It should be a picturesque, quaint little town that tourists admire as they make their way to their final destination. Imagine passing by the distillery warehouses, through downtown Loretto, the streets lined with old-fashioned street lights, nice sidewalks, a beautiful park and maybe even a mural on its own water tower signifying Loretto as the home of Maker’s Mark. (I didn’t want to go there, but it’s worth mentioning because there are still people peeved that Lebanon’s water tower has a Maker’s Mark mural on it. Some people don’t understand that the City of Lebanon’s tourism tax revenue is what paid for that mural. But, there are also people who do understand that fact but are still peeved about it. And, I get it. I really do.)
The City of Loretto could be one of the most charming small towns in America. The potential is there. I see it. But, that potential will never be reached if the heart of the city is coated in black warehouse fungus.
While contemplating all of this during the past several weeks, I was reminded of what TG Kentucky did in March of 2014 to give back to the community, help the environment and improve the look of their property in Lebanon. TG Kentucky employees, along with thousands of community members, church and civic organizations, student groups and athletic teams from Marion and surrounding counties, planted 35,000 trees around its property near Kroger in Lebanon. This project was about TG Kentucky giving back to the community that has been so good to them. In the coming years and decades, there will be a small, beautiful forest inside Lebanon. I think it’s a great example of the sort of thing Maker’s Mark could to do to improve not only the City of Loretto landscape, but also the relationship it has with its residents.