Partners explore beer project at Tumwater's historic brewhouse

OlympianMay 15, 2014 

A new partnership wants to redevelop the historic brewhouse in Tumwater and restore the site’s original purpose: Brewing beer.

Referred to as the Craft Brewing and Distilling Center, the proposal was announced Thursday as a key step in transforming the vacant area into an economic hub that generates jobs and tourism.

The project targets the historic brewery properties north of Custer Way that are owned by Centralia-based developer George Heidgerken. Located next to the Deschutes River, the old brewhouse was part of Olympia Brewery, which closed in 2003 after nearly 100 years of making beer.

The revamped site would potentially serve as an “incubator” for small craft brewers and distillers, according to stakeholders. Another goal is to cultivate research and workforce training opportunities.

Several entities have committed to the project. Tumwater will partner with property owner Falls Development, the Port of Olympia, South Puget Sound Community College, Thurston Economic Development Council, Olympia Tumwater Foundation, Washington State University Extension, and the WSU School of Food Science.

The project is still in the early stages, and several studies are already under way. The state Community Economic Development Revitalization Board recently awarded a planning grant for $50,000 to explore public-private partnerships. In addition, a $200,000 grant from the state Department of Ecology is funding an environmental assessment and market feasibility study.

Results from the studies should be available in the next six months, said Michael Matthias, brewery redevelopment project manager with the Thurston EDC. The private partners must still secure financing, but the studies can help determine some of the costs related to infrastructure, he said.

“We’re excited about the potential outcome and we think we could have a world-class development here,” Matthias told The Olympian, noting the drive to “reconstitute that site and turn it into a winner.”

Jon Potter, a consultant with Falls Development LLC, praised the public-private partnership and especially Tumwater officials for shaping the vision for a craft brewing center. He noted the financial challenges that come with restoration, which is typically more expensive than building anew.

“It was always our intent to restore the buildings to their original grandeur, but also try to be honest with what those buildings were designed for, and that was a brewery,” Potter told The Olympian. “Our hope is get started this year with at least putting a new façade around the building so it’s more presentable, and further developing plans for tenants.”

As a partner in the project, Washington State University could add an educational element. Dr. Barbara Rasco, interim director of the School of Food Science, praised the plan as “sophisticated and forward thinking.” The setup is mutually beneficial for WSU students and any entrepreneurs at the facility, she said. Students could provide agricultural expertise, technical support and product research, for example - or perhaps learn the skills to become a brewmaster and later work in the brewing industry.

“We place almost all of our undergraduate students in private business,” Rasco said. “There are all sorts of opportunities for educational advancement that surround this project.”

If it comes to fruition, the project will preserve a historic icon while delivering an economic spark to the city’s historic district, said John Freedman of the Olympia Tumwater Foundation, which operates nearby Tumwater Falls Park.

He said brewery founder Leopold Schmidt would be proud to see all these entities working together over beer.

“We’d certainly like to see it developed,” said Freedman, citing the brewery’s significance to Tumwater’s history. “Beer is what got this place started. It’s a symbiotic relationship and we’re all for it.”

Proponents say the project can transform the entire Brewery District, including the main Olympia Brewery site, which is still looking for a buyer.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 or ahobbs@theolympian.com

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