After 10 years, Olympia brewery site still sits silent

Staff writerJune 19, 2013 

Ten years ago Thursday the whistle at the former Olympia brewery sounded for the last time, a final symbolic toot to signify the end of an era: The brewery was closing after more than 100 years of beer-brewing tradition.

The final whistle blew on June 20, 2003, and the plant finally shut its doors a week later, with hundreds losing jobs and the community losing “the legacy of a well run business that supported a community,” said Carla Wulfsberg, a former city of Tumwater museum coordinator and local historian.

Wulfsberg worked near the brewery for 17 years, recalling the “smell of hops” Wednesday on her way to work.

“It contributed to our economy and sense of community,” Wulfsberg said about the brewery.

Unfortunately, not much has transpired at the brewery since it closed a decade ago; the main brewery building above Tumwater Falls is still vacant and still for sale.

Some of its recent history has been painful to watch: a plan to bottle water on the site never materialized, and the majority of the property was foreclosed on by the lender to that same water company. The lender, Capital Salvage, later ran into troubles of its own after the national economy collapsed in 2008, forcing it to file and then emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Capital Salvage still owns the remaining 31 acres of the brewery property.

At one time the property was listed for $11.9 million, but now it has no list price, said Troy Dana, the commercial real estate broker who has been trying to sell the property on behalf of a series of owners, including Capital Salvage, since 2008.

Dana said representing the brewery has been both rewarding and challenging: rewarding because he is trying to connect the right buyer with an important community asset, but also challenging because of crime at the site.

Since 2010, 32 people have been kicked off the vacant brewery property or arrested for vandalism, setting fires, or breaking and entering, Dana said.

Although the brewery has struggled to turn a page since it closed, signs show momentum is building for the future.

Some examples:

nCentralia developer George Heidgerken has purchased the old brewhouse below Tumwater Falls and cleaned it up. He also owns a former warehouse on Custer Way, which has been proposed as new hotel space.

nThe city of Tumwater and Thurston County Economic Development Council have hired Michael Matthias as brewery redevelopment project manager, a role in which Matthias hopes to advance the development process.

And proposed purchase offers continue to come in, said broker Dana, who said his office received an offer for all of the remaining property Tuesday, one of several he has received since 2008.

Dana said every day, either by phone or email, he receives an inquiry about the brewery, and sometimes it’s an offer for all or part of the property.

“We’ve had numerous parties from outside our state tour the complex, and it has resulted in offers,” he said. “But for whatever reason we have just not been successful in a meeting of minds on the business terms.”

“We’ve been close many times,” Dana added.

Dana envisions a mixed-use development on the site, offering retail, office and condo space, as well as room for a contract brewery, producing 25,000 to 50,000 barrels a year, he said.

That vision is partly personal wish list and partly informed by his conversations with other Northwest brewers, who say the area has a shortage of brewing capacity.

“The Olympia brewery still comes up in many conversations,” he said.

Historian Wulfsberg hopes that whatever is developed at the brewery will build on the legacy of the Schmidt family, whom she called “humble, kind, considerate and fair.”

“We have something to be proud of,” she said. “I hope the brewery property is innovatively and creatively developed for the community and that it builds on an amazing legacy that has been left with us.”

But what about that whistle?

After Miller closed the brewery in 2003, the city of Tumwater put in a request for the whistle, and Miller later took it down and donated it to the city, said Chuck Denney, Tumwater Parks and Recreation director.

The original whistle, he said, can now be heard at the Tumwater Valley Golf Course. The sound of the whistle is heard during golf tournaments and also toots as part of the city’s July 4 fireworks display, Denney said.

A replica of the brewery whistle also can be heard about 5 p.m. daily at Fish Tale Brew Pub in Olympia, pub manager Max Dejarnatt said.

Olympia brewery timeline:

-1896: Leopold Schmidt opens the brewery in Tumwater as Capital Brewing Co.

-1902: Name is changed to Olympia Brewing Co.

-1916: Olympia Brewing closes due to prohibition.

-1933: Olympia Brewing reopens in its new facility at Custer Way and Capitol Boulevard.

-1983-2002: Pabst, Miller and South African Breweries Ltd. operate the brewery.

-2003: SAB Miller closes the brewery.

-2004: Nevada startup All-American Bottled Water Corp. buys the brewery; plan to bottle water never materializes.

-2005: Developer Tri Vo buys a portion of the former brewery property along Capitol Boulevard; it is later foreclosed on by South Sound Bank.

-2007: Centralia developer George Heidgerken buys former brewery warehouse on Custer Way known as the RST Cellars building.

-2008: Bottled water lender forecloses on remaining brewery property and puts it up for sale.

-2010: Heidgerken buys the old brewhouse below Tumwater Falls, 32 acres of property that surround the site and two parking lots.

-2011: LOTT Clean Water Alliance buys a portion of the brewery property in the valley for a new wastewater treatment plant.

-2013: Thirty-one acres of brewery property is still for sale, including the more modern brewhouse above Tumwater Falls and warehouses in the valley. The current owner is a California company called Capital Salvage.

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