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Brewing Potential

By J. Elias O'Neal, posted Mar 28, 2014
Mike Barlas, owner of Wilmington-based Flytrap Brewing, unloads supplies at his future facility at 319 Walnut St. that Barlas plans to be operational by late spring. The Wilmington area is attracting a number of new beer companies. (Photo by Will Page)
Mike Barlas didn’t expect to be in the nightclub business, but that’s what the city is calling his new venture.

“It’s pretty weird,” Barlas laughed while taking a break from upfitting his new downtown brewery called Flytrap Brewing. “We’re going to have some live music, but the primary use for this space will be a brewery pub where we’ll be showcasing our own beers … I’m not even staying open past midnight on the weekends.” 

The zoning interpretation likely won’t be the last.

As Wilmington continues to see a rise in local craft brewery proposals, planning and economic development officials are playing a creative game of catch up to amend city zoning codes to facilitate business’s needs – a move that could generate more than just beer and good times.

“We see this as a huge opportunity for economic development,” said Phil Prete, Wilmington senior environmental planner who is spearheading an initiative finding ways to lure and retain breweries to the city. “In many ways, this could transform a number of distressed neighborhoods that we have in our more urban areas into something great for the city’s tax base.”

Untapped growth
Drive around the historic and central business districts of Wilmington, and you’ll see why city officials are looking closer at brewery growth in the Port City.

“There are some really prime pieces of real estate that could be repurposed for future breweries or redevelopment in general around the city,” Prete said. “Finding adaptive reuses for those buildings is an important part in helping spur new growth.”

Since the start of year, city planning officials have identified at least eight craft brewers that have set up shop across the city. That total was nearly nonexistent a year ago.

To untap Wilmington’s brewing potential, city officials have formed a Brewery Initiative Project Team – a mix of planners and economic development officials tasked with finding ways to draw  breweries to the city.

Prete, who oversees the group, said officials formed the team after a number of craft breweries began targeting the city for new ventures and expansions. Eventually, Prete said, the team might also look into wooing distilleries for whiskey and bourbon makers – another trend gaining steam in other metro areas across the country.

The team has identified five areas within Wilmington’s urban core conducive for small brewery growth or redevelopment: the northern riverfront area near PPD’s headquarters; the Brooklyn Arts district along North Fourth Street; the Old Southside industrial area near Greenfield Street; areas along Castle Street; and the former Coca-Cola bottling facility and surrounding industrial and retail complexes on Princess Street that’s been coined the Soda Pop district.

The group points to the ILM Business Park that abuts the Wilmington International Airport, the Landmark Industrial Park along Raleigh Street and Carolina Beach Road and some former industrial buildings on  Greenfield Street as areas conducive for mid-to large-scale brewing operations.

“We’re seeing the number of breweries grow,” Prete said. “And when you look at the economic development potential and tourism growth behind breweries, it’s important that we find ways to facilitate this growth in the city.”

The N.C. Craft Brewers Guild, an organization of brewers, retailers and vendors focused on promoting in-state craft beers, estimates that there are over 100 breweries and brewpubs operating throughout the state. 
And the number continues to grow.

North Carolina’s craft beer movement, which generates nearly $800 million in the state annually, is growing so fast that Gov. Pat McCroy signed a proclamation in February declaring April N.C. Beer Month. 

But in greater Wilmington, and much of eastern North Carolina, those dollars have mostly bypassed the region.

Local brewers think it’s time to change the trajectory.

“When you look at the area and its amenities, it’s a natural fit for the city,” said John Savard, co-owner of Wilmington Homebrew Supply, which is upfitting a former electric supply store on Kerr Avenue.

Atwater, a Detroit-based brewery looking to establish a presence on the East Coast, still has its sights on Wilmington. And Wilmington Business Development earlier this month submitted a 23.5-acre site in the ILM Business Park to Escondido, Calif.-based Stone Brewing Co. in an attempt to bring the firm’s East Coast brewery to the Port City.

While the city team’s focus may be on breweries, Prete said officials also hope to find other ways to help entice redevelopment in the urban core – regardless of whether the use is for beer or another product.

“The whole idea is to stimulate redevelopment and growth in the city,” Prete said.

He said officials are exploring incentives as a way to lure developers to historic structures bursting with adaptive reuse potential.

“We know based on what we’ve seen in places like Asheville and Charlotte that breweries are a redevelopment catalyst,” Prete said. “But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a brewery. Our goal is to push adaptive reuse because of the advantages it has on the values to surrounding property and the overall neighborhood.”

Prete said a neighborhood brewpub eventually could attract visitors – helping to spur additional investment and redevelopment in the city, along with new jobs.

“It could be huge, especially when you think about what’s already happening in the northern riverfront area and the Southside,” Prete said.

But officials may have to crack the city’s archaic codes and ordinances to make it easy for brewery growth to flow into Wilmington.

Even Savard, whose Wilmington Homebrew Supply includes a retail store and has plans for a pub and brewery, also had to get a nightclub permit.

“I know the city is doing everything they can, but that’s still pretty strange to me,” he said.

Creative code crafting

City officials admit they’ve had to work within the code to make brewery growth a reality in the Port City.

It’s a task easier said than done. 

Prete said under the current Wilmington Land Development Code, breweries are classified as manufacturing – limiting options for where breweries of any size can locate and operateBut city planning and economic officials know better, citing case studies from across the country where locally operated craft brewers have become staples in neighborhood revitalization and investment.

So, to answer the call of increased brewers looking to open in the city, planners are using brewers’ overall business plans to help match their future zoning designation.

For example, Prete said, if a brewery wants to pair food with its craft beer within a commercial zone, planners are allowing the brewery to open as a restaurant. If a brewery wants to serve only its beer and host a band or two on the side – it’s a nightclub. He added there are other variances applied to breweries that plan to sell merchandise or growlers at their establishments, but in most cases the city is able to find the zoning they need to operate.

Meanwhile, the initiative group is working on a number of text amendments to the land code that would make establishing a brewery in the city more defined.

Prete said officials plan to define various brewery designations, such as craft brewery, nanobrewery or microbrewery in the code to help planners better accommodate the needs of the brewer. He added the code would also define areas conducive for brewing in the city.

Wilmington planning officials hope to present the code amendments to the planning committee and city council by the summer.

That’s good news for Barlas. “We’re a small business trying to make it,” Barlas said. “I think we all want them to keep doing what they’re doing to make Wilmington a craft brewing destination.”

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