Raise a glass to our city councillors — for the first time in generations, it appears Brandon will be home to a beer brewery once more. And what’s more, city council managed to get a two-for-one deal in the process, with now two viable businesses planning to take up residence on a patch of land that has been left unused for more than 20 years.
On Tuesday, following a special 20-minute in-camera discussion, the council approved a proposal from JWJ Enterprises/Little Brother Brewing to buy part of the lot at 1201 Pacific Ave. The company was approved to buy 63.3 metres of frontage on the street. As we have previously reported, the city had already sold part of the lot at 1201 Pacific Ave. to Robyn Sneath/Bowerbird Holdings Ltd., which plans to build an “indoor adventure park.”
According to the original request for proposal, the city was looking for ideas to fill 137 metres of frontage on Pacific Avenue. The fact that two potential business owners came forward with solid plans amounts to a stroke of unbelievable luck for the city. That our council found a way to make both of them work is commendable.
“We’ve been planning on putting the land up for sale or tender or proposal for quite some time so I think that some of this was initially part of the first sale and just wasn’t needed, so we’re moving forward with the rest of the land,” Coun. Kris Desjarlais (Rosser) told the Sun on Monday. “There’s no other reason except to move on development of the downtown.”
Both of these projects will do much to improve the fortunes of our downtown core. These are the kinds of businesses that are needed to coax Brandonites back, a means to rediscover what downtown could become if given the chance. It also means that the city will gain new tax revenue from not one business, but two.
As we understand the situation — and originally unknown to the public — the city offered land deals to both companies right from the get-go, but at the time the brewery company wasn’t sure that the footprint of a divided lot was large enough for the plans they had in mind. At the same time, Little Brother Brewing was looking to get construction underway as soon as possible, but the desired timeline didn’t mesh with the needs of the city. That they came back to the table says a lot about their willingness to work with the city and their desire to get the brewery project back on track.
When and if this new microbrewery starts up, it will end a nearly 90-year dry spell for brewing in this city. Between the late 1880s and the early 1930s, the booming city of Brandon boasted a bevy of breweries. According to the Manitoba Historical Society website, the very first — the Brandon Brewing Company —was built at the foot of First Street in 1885. It later became the Spring Brewery, and then The Brandon Brewery, only to dry up in 1891.
The Crown Brewery, located on the north side of the First Street Bridge, started up in 1888 and churned through several owners before becoming The Empire Brewing Company. In 1903, the company built a new home at the corner of Pacific Avenue and First Street, but in late 1928 it was purchased by The Canadian Brewing Corporation and later closed in 1931.
A second Brandon Brewing Company started up in 1902 on Fourth Avenue North, only to be destroyed by fire in 1905. A new location, built on Assiniboine Avenue, operated until a referendum in March 1916 that came down in favour of Prohibition — however, a loophole allowed it to ship beer outside of Manitoba until 1919. In 1925, the company name was changed to The Premier Brewing Company, but it didn’t last beyond 1929.
It is true that both the city and these two business entities are taking a gamble on the downtown. Ending the drought in Brandon brewing is a trendy way to move forward, but as history shows, it’s a tricky business. There are already 13 microbreweries in Winnipeg, not to mention an existing estate brewery in Neepawa, plus all the other long-established labels that microbrews have to compete with nationwide for a share of the marketplace. And while microbrew lovers may bristle at the idea, Brandon remains a blue-collar town in which many still enjoy an uncomplicated beer on a hot summer night.
And we’re still not entirely sure what this “indoor adventure park” will look like — although we remain intrigued. We can only assume other Brandonites are as well.
A few weeks ago on this page, we questioned why city council decided to sell the land to Robyn Sneath/Bowerbird Holdings Ltd. for such a sweetheart deal. Minutes from the April 17 meeting showed the city sold those 68 metres of frontage to Bowerbird Holdings for $21,000 — land that was valued at about $200,000. Similarly, our council has now decided to sell this second section of the lot to the brewery company for about $40,000 — more cash in hand, but still less than market value.
We still maintain that our elected officials need to be careful not to undervalue city property when wheeling and dealing for downtown properties. But there is a case to be made here that the long-term tax revenue from both of these businesses will offset the initial losses on the sale of this property.
Rather like having your beer and drinking it too.