WILKES-BARRE — The cluster of cavernous buildings seemed doomed to remain in limbo.
The seven-acre Miller Street site landed in a pool of misfit, tax-delinquent properties that nobody wanted — known as the repository — in 2014. The hulking brick structures that once housed a bustling premier grain processing mill had been vacant for years, attracting pigeons and occasional vandals and vagrants.
But a 26-year-old Moosic man saw promise as he researched the site’s history, learning the neighborhood’s naming of Miners Mills stemmed from the mill once operated there by several generations of the Miner family.
Nick Rosati, who became enamored with the Wyoming Valley’s historic architecture when he obtained a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Wilkes University, has decided to go all in and recently purchased the complex for $500.
Operating under the company name of Miner’s Mill, Rosati is seeking a license to house a distillery in the first building he fixes up.
“With it being an old grain mill, what better way to honor the history?” said Rosati, who has experience with automated equipment and machine design through his work at Keystone Automation in Duryea.
He expects to submit a lengthy application in a few weeks to obtain a distilled spirits plant license from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The approval process for this type of license takes an average 120 days, he said.
Distilleries that make craft spirits have become increasingly popular in Pennsylvania and throughout the country, Rosati said. Licensed distillers can make up to 100,000 gallons a year and sell direct or online, he said.
Several successful craft distilleries now operate in Pennsylvania, including the Philadelphia and Allentown areas, with some featuring tasting rooms and food. He and his friends have visited several in New York.
“There’s a whole experience now,” he said.
Rosati has dabbled in home beer brewing and said the process is similar for spirits. He also will receive help from a friend who has training completing distillations.
He plans to start with spiced and flavored rum because it doesn’t require aging, but he also wants to make bourbon and other whiskeys that must sit for at least six months before they’re ready for consumption.
Rum is “extremely popular” in Pennsylvania, he said.
He points to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s 2014-15 annual retail report, which lists Captain Morgan as the fourth best liquor seller in the state. The top three are Barefoot wine, Jacquin’s flavored brandy and Sutter Home wine.
As his mind reels with potential spirit recipes and combinations, Rosati has concentrated on fixing up a three-story structure in the complex that is at least a century old.
The rawness of the structure won’t be hidden because that’s part of the allure, he said.
He sees beyond the piles of debris and other vandalism and is preparing to replace broken window panes and restore utilities to the building.
“It’s gorgeous — all post-and-beam construction and hardwood floors,” he said. “The buildings are all in surprisingly good structural shape for how old they are and how long they were neglected.”
Rosati estimates he will spend $50,000 to $100,000 to make the distillery operational in the first building. He will address the others down the road, as money allows.
“I want to save the rest of the buildings, too. All the buildings are so cool,” he said.
Neighbors have been approaching him to discuss his plans, he said.
“Everyone seems super excited,” he said.
Ireland native Thomas Wright built the original mill at the location in 1795, according to “The Early Grist-Mills of Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania,” by Charles Abbott Miner.
He selected land by Mill Creek in Wilkes-Barre and built a dam and grist mill. The mill was a “model of its day” and the first in the county to manufacture super-fine flour, according to Miner.
After Wright’s death in 1820, the mill went to Wright’s son-in-law, Asher Miner.
A marker on one of the buildings says the mill was destroyed by fire and rebuilt by Miner in 1824, then razed and rebuilt in its current configuration in 1912 by the Miner family company, then known as Miner-Hillard Milling Co.
By the mid-1920s, the company employed more than 100 people and made a variety of flours for baking and dairy and poultry feeds in addition to products needed to make beer. It had a wheat flour mill and one of the largest corn mills in the country.
After 171 years in business, the company closed at the end of 1966, with Robert C. Miner saying the business couldn’t compete with corn mills in the Midwest.
Miner-Hillard employed 75 people and was the oldest manufacturing establishment in the Wyoming Valley at the time of the announcement. The property was sold to an Illinois corn processing mill.
Wilkes-Barre Milling Co. took over the property at some point, and it ended up in the hands of the Wilkes-Barre Industrial Development Authority in 1978, according to deeds filed with the county.
The last current owners — Robert Eggleston and the late Frederick DeWees — acquired the property from the authority in 2000. The men were affiliated with Carbon Sales, which produces coal-based water filter products used by some governments and industries, including petroleum refiners and pulp and paper manufacturers, the company website says.
The Miller Street property has been vacant since Carbon Sales relocated to John Street in Wilkes-Barre Township around 2010, a company employee said.
The property, which is assessed at $974,300, hasn’t generated any real estate tax revenue since 2010, which is why it ended up in tax sales and the repository.
Rosati said he will file an assessment appeal because he believes the assessment is excessive for the site in its current condition.
Luzerne County officials have been pushing for more repository sales because the county has 1,051 properties in the pool — more than the 11 other similarly sized third-class counties in Pennsylvania, records show.
Unloading these properties is a goal because the county is liable for repository properties while the owners of record have abandoned them and stopped paying real estate taxes.
State law allows repository sales at any time without the need to publicly advertise them.
A list of repository properties may be viewed at www.luzernecountytaxclaim.com.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.