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Brewing up revitalization in Clark County’s downtown areas

Craft brewers, taprooms play important role in invigorating business in Ridgefield, Vancouver, Camas, Battle Ground

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"Taprooms create a center of gravity," said Steve Stuart, who as city manager in Ridgefield has seen an increase in midweek downtown visitors who are there to visit Ridgefield Craft Brewing. In the evenings, people come from the boat launch.
"Taprooms create a center of gravity," said Steve Stuart, who as city manager in Ridgefield has seen an increase in midweek downtown visitors who are there to visit Ridgefield Craft Brewing. In the evenings, people come from the boat launch. (Elayna Yussen for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When Lucky Lager closed in 1985, ending more than a century of brewing in Vancouver, the future looked bleak for local beer lovers. City leaders even went so far as to pass an ordinance prohibiting breweries downtown.

How times have changed.

Brewpubs, the micro-scale offspring of their industrial ancestors, have emerged as community gathering places and neighborhood economic engines, bolstering nearby businesses by drawing in potential customers outside of traditional hours.

That formula, which has boosted activity in downtown Vancouver and the Uptown Village neighborhood, is spreading as smaller cities find brewpubs and taprooms can turn sleepy districts into destinations in their own right.

“Taprooms create a center of gravity,” said Ridgefield City Manager Steve Stuart. “In the middle of the day during the week, people didn’t come downtown before, but they come now to visit Ridgefield Craft Brewing. In the evenings, people come from the boat launch.”

Storied history

Brewing in Clark County can trace its origins to 1856, when John Meunch opened his Vancouver Brewery near Fort Vancouver, according to brewerygems.com, an online history of breweries in America. That brewery, later briefly owned by Henry Weinhard, was eventually relocated to Sixth Street downtown and went through a series of owners and names including Star Brewery Co. and Interstate Brewing Co. before becoming Lucky Lager Brewing Co.

Did You Know?

Craft beer continues to be an economic force, particularly in Washington. Sales for craft brewers in the United States grew 8 percent in 2021, increasing craft brewing’s share of the United States beer market to 13.1 percent. Retail sales of craft beer increased 20 percent to $26.8 billion and now make up about 27 percent of the $100 billion U.S. beer market. Washington ranks fourth in the nation for craft breweries, with 437 of these small, independent businesses. That number appears to be steadily increasing.

The large-scale industrial brewer fell on hard times in the 1980s, closed in 1985 and shipped its equipment to China, according to press accounts of the time. The Vancouver City Council responded by enacting an ordinance barring new breweries downtown.

Ban overturned

That changed in the mid-1990s when Pyramid Brewing and Steve Bader of Bader Beer and Wine Supply enlisted a small group of home brewers to convince the city council to overturn the ban.

The city council unanimously voted for repeal based on the new trend throughout the country of brewpubs serving craft beer.

In 1995, Salmon Creek Brewery (now closed) opened in the space at 108 W. Evergreen Blvd. currently occupied by Mav’s Taphouse. It took awhile for other well-known Vancouver taphouses to open. In 2012, Loowit Brewing moved into an old warehouse at 507 Columbia St. and Heathen Brewing Feral Public House opened at 1109 Washington St., paving the way for a craft beer-based revitalization of downtown Vancouver.

“Loowit gave a comic book, D&D vibe, then Heathen a tiki bar beach party, and Trap Door brought music and pop culture. These were centrally located downtown spaces during a time when downtown wasn’t a hopping place,” said Michael Perozzo, founder of ZZEPPELIN and owner of Vice Beer in east Vancouver.

“The clientele attracted to a beer bar is different than a dive bar with shots, karaoke, college students and bar flies, places that are rough around the edges,” Perozzo said. “Places like Heathen add an event space, live music, and places for company meetings and birthday parties.”

Next stop: Camas

Craft brewers next played a role in revitalizing Camas, followed by Battle Ground, Ridgefield and Washougal.

“Downtown Camas smelled funny and just had dive bars where mill workers went after work,” said Perozzo. “Places like Caps N’ Taps (337 N.E. Fourth Ave.) brought something else to downtown. I give lots of credit to the downtown association.”

Carrie Schulstad, a former downtown business owner, has led the Downtown Camas Association for the last 8½ years. Schulstad remembers a survey of Camas residents conducted at Camas Days in the early 2000s. People wanted a craft brewery.

She marks 2013 as a turning point.

“Twilight Pizza Bistro (since closed), Birch Street Uptown Lounge and Nuestra Mesa were downtown, but the area was very slow at night,” Schulstad said. Things changed as Mill City Brew Werks (since closed), a small craft brewery and restaurant, opened in 2013 followed by Caps N’ Taps across the street.

“Brewpubs were so hot and it was a huge gap, so to have two open was great. So many people showed up for the ribbon-cutting for Mill City. There was pent-up demand for a place where people could get together and gather without having to sit down to a full meal,” said Schulstad.

When Grains of Wrath Brewery & Restaurant opened in 2018 at 230 N.E. Fifth Ave., the award-winning beer drew craft beer lovers to downtown Camas. “Grains of Wrath has won so many awards. So we’re attracting people from all over,” said Schulstad.

This increase in family-friendly choices at places opened for longer hours helped transform downtown Camas into a vibrant business district.

“You come to town more when you have more options,” said Schulstad. “A different demographic of people are into craft beer because it’s not a bar. It’s a family-friendly environment with something for everybody.”

Branching out, adapting

Officials in Battle Ground and Ridgefield believe craft breweries are playing a role in revitalizing areas throughout Clark County.

Battle Ground City Manager Erin Erdman began her career at the city of Vancouver. During her time there, she said, she was impressed by the draw of craft brewing.

“In Vancouver it started organically, and it brought in a lot of people. Battle Ground is more spread out, but we’ve had success with brewers in parts of the city,” Erdman said. “In Battle Ground, breweries have brought more business to antique stores. Husbands go to breweries, and their wives go to antique shops. The breweries bring in more foot traffic for other businesses.”

Places like Northwood Public House & Brewery, the recently closed Mill Creek Pub and Barrel Mountain Brewing have drawn business to Battle Ground.

In July, the city will be working on next year’s budget. One goal is to seek funding for Main Street and examine ways to revamp this area.

“I could see craft brewing being a part of that,” said Erdman.

In Ridgefield, Stuart says he views craft breweries as one piece of the puzzle in bringing more business to downtown Ridgefield. Craft brewing businesses like Taps Beer Reserve and Ridgefield Craft Brewing Co. have a direct impact on the business community.

“These businesses create a draw for residents and people outside of Ridgefield looking for good beer. They bring in people who may not otherwise come,” said Stuart.

Ridgefield Craft Brewing Co. sells its beer in stores and at ilani. People who buy beer at these businesses seek out the taproom and head into downtown Ridgefield. In addition, customers at Ridgefield Craft Brewing can place orders for food from neighboring restaurants like El Rancho Viejo. Food is delivered to the taproom, creating an increase in business for downtown restaurants.

All these parts contribute to making a downtown a destination, Stuart said.

“The center of gravity for revitalization isn’t just one business type, it’s a combination of businesses that provide options at different times of the day and different days of the week,” Stuart said. “The idea of a destination draw is something that creates a reason to come and a reason to stay.”

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