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Gainesville distillery’s broken dreams on Industrial Boulevard
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Gainesville Distilling Company no longer plans to open at 456 Industrial Blvd. in midtown Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

In the wake of Gainesville Distilling Co.’s departure from the former Georgia Chair factory, the property owner is returning to his original plan for a restaurant and event venue in Gainesville’s midtown.

Bob Cheeley, an Alpharetta lawyer who owns most of the 13 acres of 456 Industrial Blvd., said on Thursday, July 5, the property will be called The Chair Factory.

The space will be anchored by an event venue and a restaurant operated by Rico Cunnington, owner of the top-rated Rico’s World Kitchen in Buford, Cheeley said.

Cunnington is a “really seasoned and well-established restaurateur,” Cheeley said. In addition to Rico’s, Cunnington owns Brunch Apothecary and offers catering.

Cunnington told The Times on Friday that he sees a small plates restaurant with a wood-fired oven, which would churn out more than pizza, and a brunch and family option in what was to be the distillery space.

The portion of the facility that has already been renovated — the rooms that hosted Casey Cagle’s primary night party in May — will become an event space as first envisioned by the developer. Events are being managed by Sherri Christensen of Soirees Southern Events.

The Chair Factory is a return to the original name and concept for the new venture in midtown Gainesville. Cheeley purchased the shuttered factory in late 2016 and created The Chair Factory, getting far enough down the line to book weddings at the site, when Doug Nassaur and his fiancee Jennifer Wheatley were brought into the project with plans to create the Gainesville Distilling Co.

As described by Nassaur, Gainesville Distilling Co. would be the primary tenant for the space, managing events, a bar and a distillery in the main portion of the factory while the other portions of the 13 acres were built out with other amenities.

Ideas pitched by the couple ranged from cool to fantastical — from cafes in train cars on the property to an outdoor amphitheater nestled along the midtown greenway. To show the ambitious extent of their vision, they even had a concept drawing of Browns Bridge salvaged from Lake Lanier, where it is being replaced by the Georgia Department of Transportation, stretching atop the skyline of Gainesville in all of its green glory.

But, for the most part, visions and ideas were as far as Gainesville Distilling got at 456 Industrial Blvd.

In a meeting with the Jaycees on Thursday, Nassaur explained his side of how the midtown project collapsed. He was speaking to the group of young professionals because he had pitched them on the distillery earlier this year, selling several of the Jaycees memberships to Gainesville Distilling’s Old 385 Club — a program that promised perks when the business opened and merchandise up front.

Annual memberships were set at $250, while lifetime memberships were $1,500. Some of the people who bought into the program requested their money back and received it. Nassaur wrote personal checks to return the money, saying he didn’t currently have access to business accounts connected with Gainesville Distilling Co.

In his talk, Nassaur said the location didn’t work out through a mix of his own failures and his partner’s refusal to meet his obligations — not mentioning Cheeley by name. He has previously noted he doesn’t have a federal distilling license.

Nassaur, who told The Times he was an engineer before working on his distillery project, told the Jaycees he ran afoul of Gainesville permitting requirements because he didn’t know the difference between an architect, a civil engineer or a mechanical and electrical engineer. He said he didn’t know he needed to submit civil drawings — covering drainage plans and other property development plans that could affect public property — in addition to architectural designs.

He said he was unfamiliar with the city’s permitting process. The city says otherwise.

Rusty Ligon, director of community development for Gainesville, said on Friday that based on emails sent to and from his department, Nassaur and a contractor attended a meeting of the plan review committee in early February — the month before the city issued a stop work order at the distillery property.

The plan review committee is a multi-agency group of local planners, emergency responders and code enforcement officers that walk developers through every step of the development process. It covers Hall County and its municipalities.

Ligon attended the meeting and recalls walking Nassaur and the contractor through the city’s process.

“We discussed the project as well as our process for obtaining land disturbance permit and ultimately a certificate of occupancy,” Ligon said.

The stop work order was issued in mid- to late-March, Ligon said, likely on either March 16 or 19.

But above all, Nassaur told the Jaycees he didn’t know the city had a ban on distilleries when he moved to Gainesville to start a distillery.

He said the council could vote on July 17 to repeal the ban, and without a repeal he would likely have to take his project elsewhere.

“Everything is predicated on that July 17 vote,” Nassaur said.

It wasn’t just hiccups in permitting that sunk the project on Industrial Boulevard. Nassaur advised the group of businessmen to “get things in writing” from partners and to “ask tough questions early and often” of partners.

He also said it was critical not just to have agreements with people, but to have the resources to enforce those agreements. Nassaur told the audience he didn’t have the financial resources to require his partners on the project — again, not mentioning Cheeley by name — to live up to their end of the bargain.

Cheeley told The Times there never was any bargain.

“We were discussing a possible arrangement whereby I would invest in making his distillery possible,” he said in a phone interview. “We never reached a final agreement.”

Negotiations fell apart shortly after The Times first wrote about the project in early June, when Cheeley said he was presented with final requests from Nassaur: The distillery manager couldn’t be fired by Cheeley, who owned the property, and Nassaur would have control of the distillery and its finances despite Cheeley’s investment.

“I could never fire him with or without just cause,” the Alpharetta attorney said of Nassaur’s proposal.

Cheeley balked, and the Gainesville Distilling concept at 456 Industrial Blvd. fell apart.

Meanwhile, Cheeley funded more than $1 million in renovations on the facility beginning in March. A metal roof, electrics, drywall and other improvements — Cheeley funded all of it while he and Nassaur were working on the details of an operating agreement.

The two men never had a contract, according to Cheeley. Others whom Nassaur said Thursday he had a professional relationship with also said pen was never put to paper.

“Our plan, my plan, was to operate (the distillery) even before we were producing our own stuff,” Nassaur told the Jaycees. “We had already contracted with Tap It to do beer and wine, we had already contracted with Juan Luna to do food. So, we were going to have that place open. We had even contracted with Drew at Lanier Entertainment to start booking and having events there.”

Zach Thompson, of Tap It, said he and Nassaur had discussed beer service at the distillery but that Nassaur never responded when he was provided with a price quote for continued service.

Drew House, of Lanier Entertainment, said he got a call from Nassaur after the two met at a corn hole event at Wild Wing Cafe asking for a meeting at the distillery property in April. House appeared at the agreed time but House said Nassaur never showed. In early June, the two men finally sat down together and discussed having events on the property.

“He talked a big game about it, but he didn’t produce any paperwork and we didn’t talk about pricing,” House said.

A representative of Luna’s, who asked not to be named, said the restaurant had a verbal agreement with Nassaur and catered two events there but never put pen to paper on a longer contract. The restaurant was paid up front and in full for its catering services for both events.

And as for a Gainesville Distilling Co. bank account and the Old 385 memberships, Cheeley said no business bank account exists in relation to the distillery that Cheeley has access to but Nassaur does not.

“I didn’t make those promises to people,” Cheeley said. “I thought it was premature for him to start selling memberships until we had a deal done. … That money never landed in any Gainesville Distilling account.”