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MacDowell’s in downtown Leesburg finally buys its beach

MacDowell’s sand patio in downtown Leesburg. Times-Mirror file photo
After nearly a year of property disagreement with the town, MacDowell Brew Kitchen will buy 1,100 square feet of land from the Town of Leesburg.

After a long negotiation process, the popular bar and restaurant's owner, Gordon MacDowell, managed to convince town officials to sell the bit of land to him for $24,000.

According to Nils Schnibbe, MacDowell's business partner, the purchase won't affect customer's experience, and the restaurant will continue to function normally.

“It doesn't really change anything for us,” he said. “Now we won't have to pay rent.”

MacDowell has owned the property where his business sits since 1994. When the economy hit MacDowell's kitchen business hard in 2008, he decided it was time for a new direction.

“... We were looking for ways to utilize the space in the building, and a couple people suggested a way to follow my dream of owning a brewery,” MacDowell said. “My partner Nils came along and said 'you should open a restaurant here, a brewery … 'So we became quite a destination because of all the beers. We had microbrewery and our own beer and pretty decent food.”

They started small, gradually increasing their clientele and improving the space. Eventually, he decided to create an outdoor eating area modeled after Seacret, a restaurant he remembered going to as a child that has a sandy area where customers can sit.

“It was a little hole in the wall that kind of evolved like we are,” he said. “They put an area outside and some sand and palm trees. Now it's grown. I've read that it's the most successful bar in the U.S. I thought, We could do a mini, tiny, tiny, tiny speck of a version of that.”

So he got some sand and made his own beach. To make the space bigger, he extended the boundary of the beach into his own residential property.

“People said, 'you need more space, more tables, more chairs, more sand,'” MacDowell said. “So I got more sand and more tables and chairs. The whole time I'm thinking, well I'm expanding at the rate that my customers ask me too. I'm not trying to step on any toes. And I own this property so I should be able to use my own property.”

According to MacDowell, the surrounding businesses noticed the crowds lining up at the restaurant's door. Last year, some of the businesses called the town saying that MacDowells was conducing business on property in a residential zone.

As the town looked into the zoning, they found that MacDowells had inadvertently been conducting business on a right of way owned by the town. They sent MacDowell a letter telling him to stop using the land, and the battle that ensued has only just wound down with the price agreement.

On top of the $24,000 he needs to pay for the land, MacDowell said the process of rezoning the property from residential to business has cost him, and he almost gave in more than once. If the rezoning is approved, the entire process of rezoning and negotiating for the property will come to a close in September.

“All the legal fees I've had to pay?” he said. “Astounding. And then tack on the $24,000 I'm going to have to find. The process has almost put me out of business … I am looking forward to getting this done. I'm very happy with the business. It does seem to keep growing. I've had very positive feedback, and I'm excited about what we can do in the future. It'd be nice to invest the money back in the business as opposed to using the money to stay alive, to feed the lawyers and the engineers.”

The rezoning has been an easier process than he'd hoped for initially.

“It's been championed over there by a guy named Irish Granfield. He's a saint. He's my project manager. He's been super professional...[The process has been] handled efficiently and professionally by this particular individual and all the departments that have been in contact with him have been helpful.”

Despite a long and frustrating process, MacDowell remains positive.

“Keep your chin up and keep moving forward. Keep it positive. I do love the business. It's been a lot of fun … I'm proud that I created such a destination ...”
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