Beer Fuels Ohio City's Economic Engine

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On a recent weekday afternoon, the Great Lakes Brewing Company is alive with laughter and conversation, and the beer is flowing. It’s been 25 years since the establishment opened just off West 25th Street, across from the West Side market.

Co-founder Pat Conway recalls him and his brother taking their wives to the site of their soon-to-be-brewery…purchased at a sheriff’s sale, because its former owner went bankrupt. Conway says back then, Ohio City was a bit more run down and rowdy.

“We were heading south on 25th, and we came to Market and turned right," says Conway. "And in the middle of street there must have been two dozen men and women fighting, throwing haymakers, drunker than hoot owls, and it was a melee that was pretty eye popping. And our wives…they thought we had IQs of artichokes.”

Before the Conways launched their enterprise, big labels were the norm. Yet, the Great Lakes Brewing Company prospered with its emphasis on smaller, quality batches with local tie-in names for its beers…including Burning River Pale Ale and Lake Erie Monster IPA.

City officials added trees and lighting to the streets, and put in cobblestone. Commerce and tourism steadily picked up, with many businesses – including other breweries – sprouting across Ohio City. Conway says he’s proud to be part of the area’s transformation, and glad he got into craft brewing early.

“When we first opened up, I think there was four dozen breweries in the country. Now there’s 2,500 I think. Or at least that was yesterday, now there may be 3,000." laughs Conway. "I think they heard that there’s about another thousand on the drawing board. So we are absolutely way ahead of the curve.”

Standing on the corner of West 25th and Market Street, one is probably no more than a minute’s walk away from any number of restaurants, breweries, and distilleries in Ohio City. This begs the question of course, that with up to six craft breweries possibly opening up here in the neighborhood within the next year, is this massive economic rejuvenation at work, or a classic case of market saturation?

“We believe the rising tide truly does lift all ships,” says Sam McNulty, proprietor of the Market Garden Brewery, which is just around the corner from the Great Lakes Brewing Company.

Annual revenues for McNulty and his business partner come to $11 million. And they’ve bought a 43,000 square-ft. warehouse next door that’s been christened the Palace of Fermentation.

McNulty’s kept tab on the developing brewery industry here, and there’s much to monitor: the Ohio Commerce Department says there are 17 small craft breweries in Cuyahoga County, seven in Cleveland. He says what’s going on here in Ohio City is simply history repeating itself.

“Ohio City’s history was very much about a dense neighborhood, very walkable, and jam packed with breweries," explains McNulty. "There were 12 breweries just within a 5-10 minute walk of where sitting now, pre-Prohibition. So really, we’re not reinventing a wheel here, we’re just basically looking at what worked back in the old days, and we’re doing it again, just with a modern flavor.”

But what ensures that this dense cluster of breweries and pubs won’t dry out business? I put the question to Kevin Jacques, an Associate Professor at Baldwin Wallace and a former economist of the U.S. Treasury Department. He says this kind of concentration can actually work if certain criteria are met.

“Is the product unique enough that customers do in fact want to sample different products? And if there are enough firms, and you’re drawing enough customers, then profitability is entirely possible, even though they’re all craft breweries.”

Jacques says successful clustering is already seen with coffee houses, whether it’s big chains like Starbucks or "mom and pop" operations.

And beer is also a destination refreshment, in that groups of people often visit one bar, then another.

“You’re getting to individuals that are roughly 30 years and younger, in that they want to be part of a more walkable environment, a community environment, and beer lends itself to that,” says Justin Carson. He walks me through an old brick building on Lorain Avenue, which has been gutted and will soon be home to the Platform Beer Company.

“This originally opened as a Czechoslovakian social club and bowling alley," he says, walking through the lower level which has had all interior walls and barriers removed.

The top floor already serves as the offices of his other enterprise, JC BeerTech, which installs and cleans draft-beer and soda lines in five states. Ultimately, Carson wants this site to be a beer incubator, training entrepreneurs and launching more craft breweries across Greater Cleveland and beyond.

“So there’s great diversity within the breweries in Ohio City, where we don’t view it as competing, we’re all working together for one great beer community.”

And Paul Benner, Carson’s partner and chief brewing operator, says beer stokes both tourism and the push to support local businesses.

“You know that beer is made by people in your community that you know you have a relationship with, that you can go shake their hand….there’s nothing more local than a locally made beer,” he says.

And it’s not just Ohio City awash in suds. The state commerce department says last year there were 65 small craft breweries in Ohio. Now there are more than 100.

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