Whallonsburgh Civic Association President Andy Buchanan asked the Essex Town Board to pass a resolution allowing the sale of alcohol at the Whallonsburgh Grange on Thursday, June 26. It passed unanimously.
ESSEX — The Whallonsburgh Grange will now serve alcohol after the Essex Town Board gave them their blessings on Thursday, June 26.
But here’s the catch: It’s public property. The town owns the venerable old structure. But the Whallonsburg Civic Association (WCA), the non-profit organization that manages the facility, has been working to reverse the ban for the past two years after the town cracked down prior to a bash catered by Elizabethtown’s Cobble Hill Inn.
‘FOR THE COMMUNITY’
“The whole purpose of the Grange is that it’s for the community,” said WCA President Andy Buchanan in a pitch to three members of the town board and the public at Thursday’s meeting. “We want to provide a decent, clean, well-appointed and affordable venue.”
Buchanan said he hoped the proposed policy that would govern the use of alcohol, a measure designed to attract wedding receptions and other large celebrations that have the potential to generate revenue, would be amenable to all.
The conditions? No money will change hands between the public and WCA, he said. Beer and wine only. No hard liquor.
For private parties, groups will be required to hire a professional bartender or caterer from a list of four approved vendors who will be required to show their license and proof of insurance to the WCA.
Buchanan told board members the new proposal addressed the concerns they raised the last time the issue was presented, including outdoor drinking and signage on the premises.
All alcohol will be required to stay within the building. The staff, he said, will be instructed to monitor patrons to ensure they don’t drift into the parking lot.
“We’re not saying bring your own alcohol and distribute it to whoever you want,” Buchanan told the board. “I think it’s a watertight policy. The longer-term vision is to make the Grange more economically self-sufficient.”
Buchanan said there was no real catalyst for the push to reverse the ban. The WCA’s efforts were rather part of a continuous process designed to navigate the fallout from two years ago.
In that incident, the town banned alcohol on all town-owned properties before the party, he said. But allowed the event. Since then, the ban has been enforced.
“The town board overreacted,” he said. “There was no disturbance.”
It remains unclear who the four approved caterers would be — or how that number was settled on. Other remaining questions include what criteria the WCA and town board will use to approve the vendors, if local business owners will be given precedent and if law enforcement will beef up their patrols around the area.
The facility, which sits on the banks of the Boquet River at the intersection of Route 22 and Whallons Bay Road, was built in 1915. Events tended to be typical of rural granges at the time, a place for wedding celebrations, suppers, square dances and other country gatherings.
It faltered throughout the 1980s and was shuttered in the 1990s before a group of residents came forward in 2006 with a plan to revitalize the structure.
In 2008, volunteers started work on renovating and restoring the wooden building. New electrical and plumbing systems were installed alongside a kitchen, stage and sound system.
Ownership was transferred to the town and the facility is now managed by the WCA, a 501(c)3 non-profit through an agreement with the town.
According to Essex Supervisor Ed Gardner, who voted in favor of the resolution, the town typically subsidizes the WCA to the tune of $7,000 to $10,000 per year.
“Anything we can do to make them more sufficient is a good thing,” he said. “I know they want to get Taste NY and cideries in there,” he said. “There’s a lot of vineyards and microbreweries here, especially in the Champlain Valley.”
Gardner was joined in his approval of the resolution by board members Claire LaPine, Bryan Garvey and Mark Wrisley. Harold MacDougal was absent from the meeting.
LaPine said while her concerns were assuaged, she remained cautious.
“I went through the New York State licensing information and this does cover it,” she said. “I voted against the first time and I’m still a little leary. But I’m going along to promote the idea that the Grange becomes self-sufficient. Am I comfortable? I am not. But I feel the laws are covered.”
Chris Herd, a non-resident who lives with resident Lexi Noble, wondered about addressing violations.
“And what about a periodic revision of how things are going?” he asked.
The policy will be jointly revisited in a year, answered Buchanan. It can be cancelled at any time following an infraction.
Jim LaForest lives within view of the Grange on Route 22. He used to run the facility and still serves on their board.
“They’ve been making a mountain out of a molehill,” he told the Valley News from a rocker on his front porch.
He said he approved of the alcohol allowance but stopped short of seeing the measure as the key to the facility’s renaissance.
“It’s a nice place, but not really the type of place you’re going to use for a reception,” he said. “They’ll see four, maybe five events per year at the most.”
LaForest said his wife’s mother used to work as a bouncer at the venue during its heyday, back when they had Friday night dances.
“Everybody would sit there and drink,” he said.
Sharon Boisen, a former town supervisor and current resident, said she was against letting patrons wet their whistles.
“I’m worried about the liability if something happens,” she said. “But as long as they meet the laws, I’ll be happier.”
Another local resident disagreed with the vote on the grounds of public health.
Sandy Lewis, a cattle farmer who lives about two miles from the Grange, said he had strong feelings about the consumption of alcohol and use of tobacco, especially within Essex County.
“This community is wracked with addiction,” he said. “We’re going to go down a slippery slope. This is a public building owned by taxpayers. We’re being asked to sustain the potential liability. We do not need alcohol in public places and by whatever means, we should stop it.”
Lewis ticked off a number of substance abuse-related incidents that he said have affected people in the community and disrupted operations on his farm — including fatal overdoses, violent attacks and an incident when a town supervisor who was alledgedly intoxicated struck and killed a 78-year-old woman, and severely injured her sister-in-law, shortly after leaving a civic function at the Wadhams Grange in 1984.
The incident cleaved the community and, according to a report in the New York Times, incited allegations of a political conspiracy.
“We have lots to do and this is but a partial record of the mess here in this region,” said Lewis.
“This isn’t going to be a pub or a speakeasy,” said Buchanan. “That’s not our intention.”