OLYMPIA - Trouble - not just beer - is brewing these days at Fish Brewing Co. in downtown Olympia.
Owners of the brewery, which got its start on Jefferson Street in 1993, have plans that place them in direct conflict with Olympia’s sizable performing arts community.
They want to increase their warehouse space in the historic Olympia Knitting Mills building vertically so they can stack pallets of beer and cider kegs and bottles higher, and remodel their loading dock to improve safety and efficiency.
It’s all part of an ambitious, 10-year business plan to increase production at the brewery from 15,000 barrels – there are 31 gallons in a barrel – to 60,000, brewery production manager Dave Vitt said.
“A business like this – you either grow it, or it dies,” Vitt said.
But here’s the conflict: Growth for the brewery at its current location will be the death knell for The Loft on Cherry, arguably the most popular community-events space available for rent in downtown Olympia.
Why? The floor of the historic loft, which sits above the brewery, would have to be removed for the brewery to achieve its on-site expansion goals.
In the past year alone, the loft has hosted more than 75 community concerts and festivals, 30 weddings, 10 reunions, 25 retirement and anniversary parties, 15 educational lectures and workshops, and 27 nonprofit benefits, according to a Facebook posting by loft supporters called “Don’t Wreck the Loft.” In addition, the loft is home base to nine small businesses and 150 local musicians, artists, photographers, students and others.
“It would be a tragedy to lose that space,” said Cliff Moore, a member of the percussion group Samba Olywa, which rehearses there every Sunday in preparation for Procession of the Species and other performances.
As of Friday morning, 419 people had signed a petition on a Facebook page, calling on Fish Brewing Co.’s majority shareholder, Washington Wine and Beverage Co. of Woodinville, to secure alternative storage space that doesn’t include destruction of the loft.
If not, the petitioners, many of them consumers of Fish Tale beer and patrons of the Fish Tale Brew Pub across the street from the brewery, have threatened to boycott the products of Fish Brewing Co. and its primary shareholder.
The controversy pits people who share similar goals and beliefs against one another.
“I love Fish and the loft,” Mark Morrison of Olympia wrote on the petition. “Hopefully, there is a solution that is good for both!”
There are more than 20 empty warehouse spaces in downtown Olympia that could meet the brewery’s storage needs, said Samba Olywa member Juli Kelen.
Splitting brewery operations between two locations would be costly and time-consuming and wouldn’t solve the loading dock problem, which has trucks loading in the street, Vitt said.
And the last thing the brewery wants to do is not renew its lease with building owner Brian Kolb when it expires later this year. That would trigger a move from the 82-year-old building, which has been home to a variety of manufacturing businesses.
“We really enjoy the history of this building,” Vitt said. “If we moved to somewhere like Mottman Industrial Park, there would be no culture, just a cookie-cutter brewery.”
In a Jan. 4 open letter to the community, the 40 employees of Fish brewery and pub took exception to the portrait of Washington Wine and Beverage Co. as a corporate owner indifferent to Olympia needs.
The Woodinville company purchased majority ownership in the company in 2008, staving off an unfriendly takeover attempt by a California brewery that since has gone out of business, the letter states.
“Had this takeover been successful, Fish would most likely not be in Olympia today,” the letter goes on to say.
LOFT IN DILEMMA
Stuck in the middle of the divisive debate is Tim Smith, 52, owner of the company he formed in September 2008 to sublease the loft from Fish Brewing.
Smith, a former state Department of Fish and Wildlife employee, first saw the loft in May 2008 when it was used for the SLURP fundraiser hosted each year by the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.
“To me, it’s an inspirational place with the natural light, view of the Capitol and wooden floors,” he said about the 6,500-square-foot space.
With just word-of-mouth advertising, Smith has turned it into a hub of community activity, hosting 40 events and groups each month, such as an Irish dance class and all-ages rock concerts.
“The demand for the space totally caught me off-guard,” he said. “I’m booked out three or four months in advance.”
The likelihood that the Loft’s days are numbered has caused Smith a lot of sleepless nights.
“This thing has torn me apart,” he said. “I love the Loft, but I also feel strongly about keeping the brewery downtown. When I think of downtown Olympia, I think of beer and music.”
As hard as it is, Smith has switched his attention to finding an alternative space for the performing arts community and private parties.
He has his eyes on the ballroom at the Olympian Hotel, which is a smaller venue – 4,000 square feet – and limited in use because of its proximity to apartments. In other words, rock concerts and percussion rehearsals are out.
“Noise is definitely an issue, but I think we’d be able to keep about 75 percent of our business there,” Smith said.
The move would require some upgrades to the lighting and acoustics in the ballroom, he said.
Jenny Shaw, co-owner of the Urban Onion Restaurant and Lounge in the Olympian Hotel, also controls leasing activity in the ballroom.
“I’m working with Smith to align our businesses,” Shaw said, acknowledging that the ballroom is a very different space from the loft.
The hotel ballroom is an unacceptable alternative, Kelen said. She recalled the May 2009 Samba Olywa rehearsal there, which drew a rash of noise complaints from the neighboring residents.
She and others take exception to the Fish open letter, which talks about the ballroom as “bigger and better for all parties.”
“The ballroom is, in fact smaller, so their statement makes no sense,” Kelen said.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org