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Eric Suher details plans for Northampton church, lounge

The former Baptist Church and the corner of Elm and West Streets in Northampton.

CHARLES ABEL The former Baptist Church and the corner of Elm and West Streets in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »

Eric Suher, who bought the historic structure 18 years ago and filed plans for its renovation with the city in 2006, told the License Commission Wednesday that renovation of the space has been full of starts and stops but is back on track again.

“We’re hopeful that as we get into winter that we’ll have a firm date,” Suher told the commission.

As it has done in the past, the License Commission asked Suher to attend its monthly meeting for an update on the church and another project on Center Street. Suher is renovating the former Blue Note Guitar space at 26-28 Center St. with the intention of opening a small lounge with food and beverage service.

The Holyoke businessman owns liquor licenses for both locations, and commissioners said they have fielded calls from other business owners who hold licenses wondering why he is allowed to carry the licenses for so long without using them.

The state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission has also asked the commission for an explanation of what it describes as inactive “pocket licenses.” The state agency defines a pocket license vaguely, saying that anyone holding a license who does not comply with its obligations to conduct the licensed business will be subject to enforcement action by the commission.

“The ABCC doesn’t believe the city should be allowed to carry these licenses for that long,” said Mary Midura, clerk of the commission. She called the licenses “extremely valuable.”

Chairman William Rosen said Suher’s projects would be positive developments for the city.

“The thing is, it’s been a while,” he told Suher. He noted that the city cannot get any more liquor licenses.

“There is a possibility that you may be called to defend the continued holding of these licenses,” Rosen said.

The license for the church is an all-alcohol annual license approved in the fall of 2008, while the license for the former Blue Note Guitar space on Center Street is a seasonal all-alcohol that Suher intends to convert to a year-round, all-alcohol license next spring when he opens a new establishment there. The Center Street license is one of a handful of licenses the state allowed the city to convert from seasonal to all-alcohol.

Suher told the commission that his liquor licenses do not fit the definition of pocket license, mainly because they have specific locations attached to them that he has no intention of moving or selling. A pocket license, he explained, typically applies to people who own liquor licenses with nowhere to use them and the intent to sell them for a profit.

He noted that the license approvals did not come with a timeline stipulated by the ABCC.

Suher said he intends to provide the commission with monthly updates and will soon provide firm dates as to when both projects will be completed.

At the former Baptist Church, crews recently finished restoring a stained-glass dome, a project that took months and required the skills of a restoration specialist. The building’s exterior work is essentially completed, and mechanical systems are all installed, he said.

Full construction crews will start that project again soon and stay there until it’s completed. Suher estimated that would take about six months, at which time landscaping and the main floor of the three-floor structure would be finished and ready to open.

“There is a lot of real intricate work, very historical in nature,” Suher told the commission.

The space would house meetings, weddings and other events. The business would serve alcohol at those events as well as food. Suher said the building includes a full catering kitchen.

He added that the space occasionally may accommodate the showing of movies.

Rosen and fellow commissioner Stephanie Levin said they liked what they heard and expressed a desire that the city not lose the licenses. But they also said they need to follow the ABCC’s guidelines and may call on Suher again in the future.

“At some point, the ABCC may just say this doesn’t look legitimate anymore,” Levin said.

Suher said his plans have not changed and he called the projects “completely legitimate.” He said the only negative impact to the delay in opening is to his own business. Once open, the church will bring a lot of business to that end of the city, he said.

“Financially, I think it’s going to be a benefit to the town,” he said.

And Suher said the renovation project on Center Street has been delayed by construction of the city’s new police station, but crews are once again fixing up the 1,700-square-foot space for the lounge that he envisions will be used by patrons of the nearby Iron Horse Music Hall, which he also owns. The lounge would not include entertainment or a full menu.

In addition to Blue Note, that part of the building’s main floor also housed a rice pudding business years ago, Suher said.

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