Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Rust Belt Chic Development: Grand Rapids

About the Koehler Brewery, in Nashville:

I’m just a local Nashville home brewer.  I know there used to be a Koehler ‘s beer brewed by the old Erie Brewing Company in Erie, Pennsylvania. It went out of business in 1978, just before I was born. I have no connection to the old Erie Brewing Company, though I am originally from Western Pennsylvania. So I don’t have any special information about the old brewery or their Koehler beer. I have a few pieces of memorabilia I got from my grandfather who kept them because of the shared name, but that’s about it.

I was born in Erie, PA, before the brewery went out of business. I remember digging up Koehler flat tops in the woods near my house in Millcreek. I collected beer cans, an odd hobby for a kid all of 7 years. I was aware of this country's geographically diverse brewing traditions at a young age. Fitting that the Erie name would live on outside the Rust Belt.

Thanks to the craft beer revolution, many historical brands are being revived. It's a cultural trend, Retro Renovation. It's Rust Belt Chic development. The window is closed for Erie. The brewery building was demolished. The name, as you now know, migrated to a cooler city. Grand Rapids is undeterred by the mistakes in the past:

“When we started, there was definitely a sense of wanting to bring back the tradition of brewing in West Michigan,” said Engbers, who spent time researching the city’s old braumeisters at the Grand Rapids Public Library while trying to find a business name he and partner Mike Stevens could agree on.

In today's Rust Belt, one doesn't raze breweries (if you can find the financial capital) to make way for urban renewal. Brownfields are the new greenfields. You mine your community's history and build a business:

Bar owners Mark and Michele Sellers, who purchased the assets after the storied brewing franchise closed on 28th Street last year, is rebooting the brand this year with a new brewpub located at the entrance to the city’s entertainment district on Ionia Avenue.

“With a name like Grand Rapids Brewing, it should be downtown,” said Mark Sellers, who has had success as owner of Hopcat, Stella's Lounge, The Viceroy, McFadden's and part of The Pyramid Scheme under his Barfly Ventures LLC holding company.

“I had that in mind when I bought the name.”

Sellers’ new brewpub will be an anchor tenant on the ground floor of the Hawkins and Gunn Company buildings between Van Andel Arena and the new Buffalo Wild Wings.

The historic buildings, at 1 and 7 Ionia Ave SW, are being functionally combined into one under new owner Derek Coppess of 616 Development, who is spending $7.5 million to convert the upper floors into offices and 26 market rate apartments that will be available this fall.

The Grand Rapids brewery was demolished during the 60s, the age of logical positivism and social engineering. Make way for the future. People did, by moving to the Sun Belt. But the culture was still there, in downtown Grand Rapids, a few feet below the pavement:

Most people don’t realize it, but the city surface we walk on, in some places, is about 15 to 20 feet above the original streets of downtown.

Down below, remnants of the city’s brewing history are buried in the dirt of progress, waiting for someone like Steve DeBoode to find them.

DeBoode, of Jenison, was there when excavations began for Van Andel Arena and Plaza Towers. Among the artifacts unearthed by crews readying the riverfront site for skyscraper construction in 1989 was something previously thought to be nonexistent.

Pulled from the mixture of dirt, old hay and buried barn beams was a glass bottle bearing the name G&C Christ Brewery. One of the earliest beermakers in Grand Rapids, it opened on Ottawa Avenue near the present site of the Grand Rapids Press turned MSU Medical School building not long after the city incorporated in 1850.

“Nobody up to that point had ever seen a Christ bottle before, and suddenly there it was,” said DeBoode. “You sit there thinking, ‘Wow, nobody has touched this since the guy who drank it and pitched it.’”

This archaeological dig is the essence of Rust Belt Chic. We excavate in order to create, the first rule of economic development.


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