- Associated Press - Saturday, November 26, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - A team of former Green Berets who served around the globe are on a new mission.

It involves skills they learned in their time with the Special Forces. Scouting out locations. Getting to know the locals. Developing a plan of action to achieve an objective. Making that happen, despite the obstacles.

This time, instead of trudging across the dusty landscape of Afghanistan and battling the Taliban, the men have traveled the Tampa Bay area, battling bureaucracy, the real estate market and the challenges of finding a home for a 19-foot-tall commercial still.

They’re working to establish American Freedom Distillery, which will make whiskey and vodka, rum and gin.

“Freedom isn’t free,” reads one of their marketing catch phrases. “It’s actually $39.95 a bottle.”

Their home base is the old Genius Central building at 2232 5th Ave. S, a few blocks north of Tropicana Field, in the heart of the Warehouse Arts District.

“We liberated Iraq and Afghanistan in less time than it took us to find this building,” said Scott Neil, a retired Green Beret master sergeant. “And we are the guys who actually did it.”

Neil and three friends - ex-Green Berets Rob Schaefer, John Koko and Tyler Garner - have been working on the idea of a craft distillery for about 18 months. Other former Green Berets will be joining soon. It was a way to pursue a passion and, importantly for veterans, continue with a sense of mission, all while transitioning to civilian life.

There were hurdles to jump.

First, they wanted to set up shop in Ybor City. But special restrictions in the historic Latin district, plus finding space for a still that stands nearly two stories tall and nicknamed Martha Raye for the entertainer named an honorary Green Beret, made that impractical. Rent in other high-traffic areas of the city were too high. One reason, says Neil: Property owners are holding onto buildings in hopes of commanding top dollar with redevelopment in Channelside.

So they set their sights on St. Petersburg.

Dave Scott, a retired Air Force major general and civic leader who has championed Ybor City redevelopment, is friends with the novice distillers and says St. Petersburg is doing more than Tampa to attract businesses like this.

“Right now, their approach toward embracing their cultural assets, supporting public events and encouraging small artistic or craft-related business is far beyond what we have been able to undertake in Tampa,” Scott says.

Bob McDonaugh, Tampa’s administrator of economic opportunities, calls that view “baloney.”

“There have to be 20 new craft beer places that opened up in the past year,” says McDonaugh, adding that there are three in Ybor alone. “It’s not a valid concern.”

As for high rents, McDonaugh says, Tampa is still a “hot market,” with $2 billion in building permits issued last year.

Maybe too hot for some small businesses, says John Dingfelder, former Tampa City council member and an agent with Keller Williams Realty. Property owners in the Channelside area are indeed aiming to capitalize, Dingfelder said, on ripples from $1 billion in new development planned by a consortium led by Tampa Bay Lighting owner Jeff Vinik.

“I agree that we have an inventory problem,” Dingfelder says. “We have a very hot market.”

The future came into sharper focus after a meeting distillery partner Schaefer attended in St. Petersburg, where he lives, about the future of Tropicana Field. There, he met a number of city officials.

“He told us what he was trying to do, and several people reached out to help him,” says Sophia Sorolis, the city’s manager of economic development.

Soon, Schaefer and his teammates started touring buildings in St. Petersburg. After scouting several locations, they settled on a spot just around the corner from the 3 Daughters Brewery.

All told, the men have invested about $1 million in the business so far.

Says Sarolis, “It will be a wonderful fit for that area.”

For the ex-Green Berets, there is another ridgeline to cross before business can take off.

Current state law limits the amount of spirits that craft distilleries can sell directly to retail customers - two bottles per brand, per person.

“Quite frankly, that’s absurd,” says newly elected State Sen. Greg Steube, a Republican from Bradenton. Just as he did when he was in the state House, Steube says, he will push for legislation to ease those restrictions, which he feels limits the ability of craft distilleries to succeed.

Steube says he is waiting to get a draft of the bill back from lawyers and plans to introduce it in December.

It might raise a question - former Green Berets choosing liquor of all things for a business venture.

“But it’s natural,” says Schaefer.

Green Berets drink the local favorites around the world. And as an officer once assigned to the diplomatic corps, getting to know the finer points of liquor was actually part of Schaefer’s training.

“I was a Russian expert. I got to know vodka.”

But he also got to know scotch, bourbon and gin. The partners visited distilleries around the country, as well as in Scotland and Ireland. They took classes and learned the science of turning wheat, rye, potatoes and molasses into alcohol.

American Freedom Distillery plans to begin hosting private holiday events in December, with a soft opening geared toward the NCAA college football championship in January. A full opening is expected by the spring.

Neil says he anticipates producing 400 bottles of distilled spirits every day, hosting events, selling merchandise, and offering whiskey experiences and tours of the distillation process.

“We want to create a legacy in the St. Pete area and be measured by the quality of the spirits we are going to make,” Neil says. “It’s not as much about who we were as who we are now.”

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