With the Tumwater City Council’s approval Tuesday, Mayor Pete Kmet will authorize a letter of agreement with property owner Falls Development LLC to have the iconic building donated to the city. Kmet said the owner still needs to write the deed.
The deal shifts responsibility to the city for protecting and restoring the 111-year-old brewhouse. The brick building served as the original Olympia Brewery until 1916, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Under the agreement, the city will own the building and the land beneath it within a perimeter of 12 feet. The city also will acquire trail easements to provide public access to the site and eventually connect it with the county’s trail system.
Most people at Tuesday’s public hearing on the donation supported the acquisition as a way to honor the area’s heritage. Others were concerned about the financial risks and the impact of future development on the area’s character.
Those in favor of the donation see it as an opportunity to save a historic building that put the region on the national map. Rob Kirkwood of the Old Brewhouse Foundation said the public has shown intense interest in preserving the landmark. He said the acquisition will provide a return on investment not just financially, but culturally.
“Today it sort of feels like we’re making progress,” he said Tuesday. “This project really requires public involvement.”
But Tumwater resident Donovan Cathey urged the council to reconsider the donation. He wondered whether the city could find a partner to help with restoration. Cathey also was concerned that the brewhouse could siphon away money from critical city projects, such as street repairs.
“The transfer of this building … is a liability to the owner, and I believe we’re transferring that liability to the city,” he said. “It’s been in the private sector for quite some time and nothing has been done. If the private sector felt that something should be done, they would invest in it, and at this point, they have not.”
Jon Potter, a consultant with Falls Development, noted property owner George Heidgerken “thought this iconic building should be under someone else’s wing.”
“This property was not purchased with the idea that it was a business opportunity,” he said.
Some say time is running out for the brewhouse. The longer the city waits, the less likely the building can be properly restored, said Heidi Behrends Cerniwey, assistant city administrator and brewery project manager.
“The old brewhouse is for Tumwater what the Space Needle is for Seattle,” she said, noting the building’s state of decay. “It’s still salvageable, but it won’t be that way forever.”
Tumwater’s preservation strategy will rely on a funding campaign for tax credits, grants, donations and partnerships.
The cost to remodel and preserve the aging structure is estimated at $5.6 million, according to a 2015 study. Construction would include a new roof and reinforced walls that can withstand seismic activity.
For a short-term fix, the study recommended a temporary roof and window coverings that would protect the brewhouse from further weather damage. That temporary step comes with an estimated price tag of $425,000, according to James Cary of Cardinal Architecture, which participated in the 2015 study.
To more accurately determine the brewhouse’s structural soundness, Cary suggested the city find out whether the unreinforced masonry building stands on solid basalt or a softer soil. Cary also noted that all estimates reflect construction costs and do not factor in additional expenses, such as permits, legal fees and project management.
Councilman Tom Oliva said the donation will put the city in a better position to receive grants for historic preservation.
“It would be an oversight not to take advantage of the offer we have now,” said Oliva, who stressed that the city must avoid “demolition by neglect” with the brewhouse.
Councilwoman Joan Cathey abstained from voting on the letter of agreement. She supports the brewhouse’s preservation, but is concerned about the lack of money available to do so.
“We’re taking a big leap here,” she said. “I’m not against it. I’m just not comfortable voting for it.”
Councilman Ed Hildreth was absent from Tuesday’s meeting. Kmet relayed that Hildreth would have voted against the donation because he doesn’t think the building should be a public investment.
Kmet acknowledged that the donation comes with its share of risks, but he urged the council to find the courage to vote yes. He said he regrets a missed opportunity about 20 years ago to get the brewhouse under public control.
“We’ve taken an important step tonight,” Kmet said after the vote Tuesday.
Tumwater has a grand vision to create a craft brewing and distillery center that turns the area into an economic hub and job generator — and capitalizes on one of the state’s hottest industries.
On that note, the city council will review a planned action ordinance for the brewery district at 7 p.m. April 19 at City Hall. The ordinance identifies all the regulations for the brewery properties on the north side of Custer Way and clarifies what a developer can build. The goal is to provide incentive for development in the area.