Talk of a possible brewery coming to town was on tap at Monday night’s Old Fort Board of Aldermen meeting.
The meeting was packed wall-to-wall with town residents and business owners. Senate Bill 290, signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on July 29, takes effect Oct. 1. Part XXI of the law states the owner of a brewery permit may “regardless of the results of any local malt beverage election, sell the malt beverages owned by the brewery at the brewery for on- or off-premise consumption…” The owner must obtain the appropriate permit from the state ABC Commission, which is based in Raleigh, according to the new state law.
On Monday, The McDowell News reported that Hillman Beer, a family-owned craft beer business near Biltmore Village, was planning to open a second location in Old Fort, operating out of the Parker Hosiery building on Catawba Avenue. It was described by co-owner Greig Hillman as “a full restaurant and brewery with 18-plus varieties of our beer, something for every taste, as well as a selection of the traditional non-alcoholic beverages, tea, soda, etc.”
Jeff Parker, owner of the Parker Hosiery building and Mill Creek Properties, began the meeting’s public comments with a review of these plans.
“On the governor’s signing, Mill Creek Properties, LLC and Hillman Beer, LLC in Asheville agreed to construct and operate a 10,000-square-foot brewery and restaurant within the town’s limits,” said Parker, who said the business would provide 30 full- and part-time jobs. “It signed a 15-year lease valued at $672,000. Hillman Beer has currently issued purchase orders to equipment manufacturers valued at half a million. In addition, Mill Creek Properties has committed to spend up to $300,000 to upgrade its facility.”
As he spoke, Parker also addressed the town’s dry jurisdiction, which he said had negatively impacted new business growth in Old Fort.
“In my efforts to recruit new businesses to our facility,” said Parker,” the fact that Old Fort is dry has always been a negative every single time. Not one potential investor has indicated otherwise.”
Additionally, Parker claimed that on alderman had been spreading misinformation on social media in regards to allowing businesses to obtain permits and licenses to establish a brewery.
“Considering above, it is extremely disheartening to find that a town alderman took to social media to spread false information and threaten to deny businesses, town business permits to anyone attempting to establish a brewery,” said Parker. “This alderman would deny legitimate operators, permitted under the state’s ABC laws, a town business permit. Business permits cannot be withheld under arbitrary or discriminatory fashion. Any effort by the town to deny licenses and permits or create new restrictions would not only be financially damaging to the town, but to both Hillman Beer and Mill Creek Properties.”
Later in the meeting, Alderman Andrew Carlton, who admitted to being the referenced board member, called those remarks “a snap reaction” and said that despite personal objections to alcohol, he would not interfere with any such developments.
Parker closed with, “I respectfully ask the town leadership to abide by North Carolina law and join us in finally bringing some growth to Old Fort. The town’s citizens and business owners are tired of being a sanctuary city for economic disparity.”
Mayor Rick Hensley responded.
“Very lucid, and well thought out. In response, thank you for your comments. Economic despair, I do have a little problem with, but that’s a matter of opinion for everyone.”
“Economic despair,” Parker replied,” to me, is buildings being unoccupied, buildings where people put up OSBs instead of windows. If you don’t see an opportunity for growth at this time to invest, whether it’s people inside the town or outside the town at this time, that’s economic despair.”
“What I meant by that,” said the mayor, “was like, in the last six years that I’ve been in here, you come down Main Street, there was eight empty storefronts. Go down Catawba, there was seven. Now, within those six years, we only have three on Main Street and three on Catawba, counting ones on the other side of the interstate. Now, as far as economic despair, yes we are having growth. It is slow compared to some, but that was the only thing I disagree with you on, was economic despair.”
Hensley later provided a public comment of his own, to those in attendance.
“This is kind of like a show-and-tell. How many business owners do we have here in Old Fort and surrounding Old Fort? How many do we have in the room?”
A number of hands – between a third and half he room – were raised.
“Very good,” said Hensley. “Just this year alone, how many of you business owners sponsored, volunteered, or vended in Pioneer Day, Gold Festival, rodeo or Summer Carnival?”
A few hands remained up.
“Mhmm. It sounds to me like some of the businesses want economic despair. But, that’s just a matter of opinion.”
The comment was met with a wave of groans, followed by accusations that the mayor was “cherry picking” certain events that business owners participated in.
“This is not picking on you,” clarified the mayor. “This is me asking how many of you got involved in these town events.”
Carlton added to the discussion.
“How many Old Fort residents do we have that are in the room that are registered to vote in town?”
Once again, another show of hands.
“The townspeople, I’ve had 40 or more get in touch with me – they’re registered voters – saying ‘We voted alcohol out of town years ago and now the state is shoving this new law down our throats and now our vote no longer matters.’”
When asked to define when this vote took place, Carlton and Hensley claimed it took place “in the ‘50s.”
“Sir, it seems to me that if it were in the ‘50s, it’s likely they’re not alive today if they were registered voters,” chimed one attendee.
“Are you saying your parents made a bad vote?” Hensley replied.
He later added, “We would like to greet any new business, no matter what they are, and we hope they all do well. Last year, or the year before last, we had 12 new businesses, and only two of them failed. The other 10 are still going. So it’s not like we have been in a deep depression.”
Another resident, Carol Tee, asked the mayor and all aldermen if they would support the business moving forward in Old Fort without interference or “road blocking.” While five members responded affirmatively (with Carlton saying it was “entirely up to the public”), Wayne Stafford replied, “I’m not making a comment right now.”
“I guess that’s a no?”
“Not necessarily, just going to wait to see how things work out.”
After the meeting, The McDowell News reached out to numerous attendees for their thoughts.
“I think it went very smoothly,” said Susie Calloway Painter, who has been a vocal advocate for bringing alcohol to Old Fort for two years. “I’m hoping that the aldermen are being very truthful about not trying to block anything. We’re hopeful that we’re finally going to see some progress, some change.”
Painter also added, “Another thing I wanted people to know about, for people against the sale of alcohol in Old Fort: alcoholism is a disease, just like diabetes. What is the difference between trying to treat a disease and trying to say it’s a sin? I just don’t understand that. We need to understand that some people can drink and some people can’t. Some people can handle it, some people can’t. So, I really want people to understand what we’re wanting to do is see an economic development for our town and see a progress and for our children and grandchildren, our tourists – we want to see some growth. We don’t want our children to say, ‘I can’t wait to get out of this town.’ We want them to feel like they’re proud, that they would say they were from here and that they would want to come back.”
David Fretwell, co-owner of Railway Rest, was equally grateful for the new state law being passed and potential economic growth in Old Fort.
“We would like to see the town support Hillman coming to town, really for the betterment of everybody here. This is going to bring more commerce, employment, traffic through Old Fort. It is going to be good for everybody. But you have to understand some of the history of Old Fort; they haven’t supported that. I feel they don’t support it now, but hopefully with the new legislature, that’ll change and give Hillman a chance and the Town of Old Fort to open up and do something different.”