TBJ: The town that beer could save

TBJ: The town that beer could save

The former Prime Tanning facilities are well-suited for a brewery, according to town officials.
The former Prime Tanning facilities in Berwick, Maine, are well-suited for a brewery. photo by Chloe Kanner

Berwick hopes to revitalize its downtown with a brewery

Berwick, from the old Norse, translates to “Barley Village.” It’s fitting, then, that this small Maine town’s plan for revitalization centers around a craft beer brewery.

Those plans involve the former site of Prime Tanning, a leather goods manufacturer that once occupied 11 acres in the center of Berwick. Since Prime Tanning shut down the factory in 2008, this large cluster of derelict buildings in the heart of town has sat vacant.

The townspeople are determined to restore this property and put it to good use. The Envision Berwick Committee (formerly the Downtown Vision Committee) formed in 2012 to explore options for the downtown corridor based on the community’s wants and needs.

“We have a ‘do-over’ in the downtown,” says Frank Underwood, vice chairman of the Envision Berwick Committee (EBC). “And we’re trying to put it back the way that the
townspeople want it done.”

In the spring of 2013, the EBC sent a survey to the town’s 3,500 residents to get feedback about what they would support in the area. An overwhelming majority of respondents — 95 percent, to be exact — said they would support a brewpub.

For the members of the EBC, the concept is bigger than a brewery. They see it as a potential economic driver, a community meeting place, and the main component of a plan to create a more vibrant, thriving downtown.

“We see a brewery/brewpub as an anchor for our downtown,” says EBC chairman James Bellissimo. “It is a central piece from which we could attract additional shops and businesses, which could work synergistically with the brewery. We hope to attract brewers who embody our village vision, brewers who become a part of the movement.”

An aerial view of Berwick, Maine.
An aerial view of Berwick, Maine. The area highlighted in yellow is full of vacant buildings that previously housed Prime Tanning. The Envision Berwick Committee wants to see the property redeveloped to house a number of businesses, including a brewpub, which they believe will help revitalize downtown Berwick. photo courtesy of Envision Berwick

Prime space
The town of Berwick has received two grants from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields program, which provides resources to help clean up and reuse former industrial sites that are contaminated with pollutants. In order to secure the grants, the town acquired the property from Fund of Jupiter, a company that controlled the site after Prime Tanning moved out. Once the cleanup is finished, the town will deed the property back to Fund of Jupiter, which will look into leasing space to other businesses.

With the federal grants, the town now has more than $1.42 million available to convert the site into usable space. Now, the EBC is looking for brewers interested in setting up shop, and they hope to get moving quickly.

“The way the (Brownfields) program is structured, you have a three-year window to spend the money,” says Underwood. “We’re starting on it early … because if we can bring somebody in sooner, there’s a way to weave the site amenities into their plans, so they get a bang out of that dollar as well.”

If they act fast, the brewery could have a say in which parts of the existing buildings might be advantageous to keep, rather than leveling everything.

“Some of the newer buildings are more readily adaptable,” Underwood says. “They’ve got some high bay buildings, meaning floor to ceiling heights of 22 to 24 feet. They’ve got places in there that have heavy-duty floors built up for storage. There’s a trucking bay in there, so it’s got a lot of pieces in there that would allow it to be repurposed.”

With 40,000 to 80,000 square feet available, there’s plenty of space at the site for a large-scale brewing facility. Furthermore, the prior occupants set things up nicely for a brewery.

“Our water treatment plant is sized to handle the tannery, so it would be sized to handle a brewery,” says Tom Wright, chair of the Berwick Board of Selectmen. “It’s way underutilized. We’re looking for big things to use it.”

Envision Berwick Committee members Frank Underwood, Pat Boisvert, Paul Boisvert, James Bellissimo, Tom Briggs, and Debra Briggs.
Left to right, Envision Berwick Committee members Frank Underwood, Pat Boisvert, Paul Boisvert, James Bellissimo, Tom Briggs, and Debra Briggs. photo by Chloe Kanner

Regional recognition
High visibility is another potential perk for an incoming brewery. While many breweries are sheltered in industrial parks, the former Prime Tanning property sits right in the heart of downtown Berwick, just over the bridge from Somersworth. According to the EBC, an average of 18,000 cars pass the location daily during peak season.

While Portsmouth is the Seacoast area’s craft-brewing hub, the industry has been growing outward from this epicenter in recent years. Rollinsford’s North Country Hard Cider, Dover’s Garrison City Beerworks and 7th Settlement Brewery, Newington’s Stoneface Brewing, Newmarket’s Deciduous Brewing, Exeter’s Neighborhood Beer Co., North Hampton’s Throwback Brewery, and Kittery, Maine’s Tributary Brewing are all examples of recent successes outside of Portsmouth.

Bad Lab Beer Company, slated to open later this year, will be Somersworth’s first brewery, promising to bring hop-forward beer to the Salmon Falls area. A brewpub in neighboring Berwick would extend the regional industry even farther, while also bolstering the two-town region of Berwick and Somersworth as a destination for beer enthusiasts.

With plans for construction to begin this summer, the EBC is actively searching for an interested party to make a Berwick brewpub a reality. And with that brewpub, they hope to achieve their vision for a better Berwick.