Chehalis Tribe Ready to Move Forward on Distillery Project

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Looking out over a field of dirt and gravel, Chehalis Tribe leaders see a site that will soon be crawling with construction workers and equipment, that before long will be home to a gleaming distillery, brewery and restaurant operation — a must-visit destination amid the region’s booming craft beverage scene. 

The ambitious project known as Eagle One is a big part of the tribe’s economic development vision — an investment of more than $10 million that is expected to employ 100 or more workers once it’s up and running. Next week, tribal leaders will vote on finalizing an agreement with a construction company from Tacoma, and work will begin on turning the long-anticipated project into reality.

Work on the distillery will start about a year later than the tribe anticipated, and the path to construction involved far more than blueprints and permits. It was a saga that played out in congressional hearings and votes — and changed a federal law that had long discriminated against Native Americans. 

“It was a delay, but we’re back on track and ready to go,” said David Burnett, CEO of Chehalis Tribal Enterprises, the tribe’s economic development agency, which has shepherded the distillery project.

About a year ago, as the tribe readied to move ahead with Eagle One, they were notified that an antiquated federal law banned the distilling of alcohol on tribal lands. The 1834 statute had long been an afterthought in the U.S. Code, and tribal leaders quickly notified their legislators in D.C. of the problem.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, took up the issue, leading efforts in the House to overturn the ban. The tribe’s chairman, Harry Pickernell, testified at a pair of congressional hearings about how the law had stalled tribal development. Members of Congress, he said, could hardly believe such an obviously racist law was still on the books.

“The two testimonies I did, they were like, ‘Why are you here?’” he said. 

Both the House and Senate voted to overturn the ban in November, and in December President Trump signed it into law. A few months later, the Chehalis Tribe is finally ready to move ahead on its plans. As Herrera Beutler toured the site with tribal leaders Thursday, she said it was exciting to see her work have tangible results so soon — a rarity as a federal representative.

“My job is to help people cut through the bureaucracy, so it’s exciting to see something happen this quickly based on the collaborative effort,” she said. “These don’t come often.”

Eagle One will be built next to the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Grand Mound — also a tribal business — located just off of Exit 88 on Interstate 5. Plans for the project shown Thursday include a 200-seat restaurant with expansive distilling and brewing facilities. The design features lots of glass and catwalks to allow for self-guided tours of the operation.

“It’s going to be quite a structure,” Burnett said. 

The tribe is finalizing a partnership with an established distilling company for operations, and it will conduct its own brewing work, having recently hired a master brewer.

“We’ll be working on creating a brand of our own and building that one from the ground up,” Burnett said.

The restaurant will be upscale American fare, and the tribe has already lined up a restaurateur to lead the creation of that venture. In all, Eagle One will be designed to create an experience for guests, who can tour the facility and see how beverages are made, sample the drinks and sit down for a meal.

Backers also envision guests at the tribe’s Fairfield hotel walking next door for a drink, and folks who stop in for dinner booking a night at the hotel. 

“What we’re counting on is that these businesses will work together,” Burnett said. 

The Chehalis Tribe doesn’t have an estimate for the construction jobs the project will provide, but they expect Eagle One to employ 100 to 120 workers once it’s open for business. 

“Our main purpose for all of this is to provide jobs to the area, not just tribal members but community members alike,” Pickernell said. “That’s our big plan for this area. Let’s bring it back to life.”

The tribe believes the distillery, along with its nearby ventures like the Great Wolf Lodge, could be a draw for travelers in an area that had long had little to offer. Walking around the site Thursday, Herrera Beutler said she could see that vision.

“It’s going to be an awesome opportunity economically, and for the region,” she said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of welcome, because it’s a growth opportunity.”

She’ll have plenty of reason to return. When the distillery opens, Burnett hinted, there might just be a drink named after Herrera Beutler. 

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