The Fight for Local Craft Beer
Craft breweries inject culture, youth, and cash into communities. It’s no wonder towns across the country are fighting to get one.
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The citizens of Roanoke, Virginia, were desperate for a good drink. In the past ten years, five of America’s biggest craft brewers—Deschutes, New Belgium, Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada, and Stone Brewing—all went in search of East Coast headquarters, and Roanoke, Mills River, North Carolina, and Philadelphia, among others, were tripping over each other to win their affection.
In 2011, Mills River beat out Roanoke for Sierra Nevada, and in 2014 Roanoke lost out to rival Richmond, Virginia, for Stone. But the city of 99,800 refused to back down. After a hard-fought four-year pitch process that involved state and local governments earmarking up to $13 million worth of incentives for Deschutes and taking location scouts on big-wheel-tricycle rides, Roanoke became HQ2 for the Bend, Oregon, brewhouse.
Deschutes is just one of over 6,000 craft breweries in the U.S., and the industry’s effects on the ground can be profound. According to a 2016 University of Montana economic study, 61 of the state’s craft breweries raised residents’ incomes by $33 million and helped employ 1,044 people. In Kent County, Michigan, home of Grand Rapids—known as Beer City USA—brewers generated more than $7 million in direct spending from visitors in a single year, according to one study. The impact on Roanoke could be even more substantial. Landing an operation on the scale of Deschutes is expected to create more than 100 jobs and generate more than $200 million in annual revenue.
Currently, there is no construction date set for the Roanoke brewing facility, but the expansion is already transforming the midsize metro area, which is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The company hosts local charities at its new taproom and has established an East Coast cyclocross team, says Pete Eshelman, director of the Roanoke Outside Foundation. “Most of all, the people here felt like they were finally seeing the benefits of an overall reinvention of the town that’s been in the works for a while now,” he says.
That’s not an uncommon sentiment, explains economic-development consultant John Karras. “Breweries can really help brand a community,” he says, pointing to the Northeast, where beer lovers instantly associate Dogfish Head with Milton, Delaware, and Otter Creek with Middlebury, Vermont. “And more important, it helps create a culture around young people and outdoor recreation.”
As it turns out, those were the same qualities Deschutes was looking for when it went in search of an East Coast home. “Outdoor activities are really important for us as a company and for our culture,” says Deschutes president and CEO Michael LaLonde, who shared in the arduous task of biking and hiking the heck out of several candidate towns. Roanoke was not only flush with adventure, but it felt like a blank slate in much the same way Bend did 30 years ago.
“Bend in the late 1980s was struggling quite a bit,” says LaLonde. “We had a significant impact on its growth. Brewing really does improve the economy, as well as tourism. The same holds true for Roanoke.”