Downtown redevelopment comes in many forms, but some reuses have an impact measured not just in economic terms but also social and community impact. These projects contribute directly or indirectly to community building. For instance, a coffee shop impacts the local environment by producing a space where people gather, converse, and linger for a while. Rather than just selling a product, these businesses also help tighten the fabric that binds together local communities.
Economists often talk about “externalities” or the external costs and benefits a certain economic activity can create. And certainly in the case of some downtown efforts the externality is to create a center of gravity that draws people in. One of the best examples of this is the brew pub.
In 1998, I was visited by my slightly older doppelgänger. Into my Hallowell office strode a dude who looked a lot like me (again, though older) and had a plan to create an English style pub in Kennebec County. He had trained as a brewer in England and had a clear idea as to what he wanted to create: a place where people would feel comfortable and come to see as a part of the rhythm of their lives. A place where people could share stories, listen to music, sit for a while and forget their worries if only for a time. Not pretentious, not expensive, just — comfortable, like a favorite pair of jeans.
Said doppelgänger’s name is Geoff Houghton, and the idea he had was a brew pub called The Liberal Cup. At the time, there were only a handful of brewpubs in existence, most notably Gritty McDuff’s in Portland. And as such, like any new idea, it was greeted with intense skepticism by the investors that I brought Geoff to in order to fund this endeavor. One well-known local investor ended our meeting with “if I could list the last thing I would ever invest in, it would be higher on the list than this.”
But after a boot-strap opening it was almost immediately a success, and has come to be an institution in Central Maine. I have seen people get engaged there, cut legislative deals, and celebrate moments in their lives. But people mostly come because its like an old friend. This success is a function of the discipline and commitment of Geoff, but also in part because people are looking for these spaces in their lives. And what better place than the downtown.
Brew pubs can jump start downtown development by creating a vibrant atmosphere of activity, and one that can benefit a larger redevelopment effort. This is why in 2007 I asked Geoff to repeat the Liberal Cup experiment in Saco, a suggestion that was greeted with intense resistance by my detail-focused partner. “Do you want to kill me? Is that what you want? To be worked to death?” was his initial response. I explained to him that I had received a phone call about the demise of the Carrabasset Brewing company, and the need to move the equipment – fast. Move it we did, to Saco, and the Run of the Mill was born. As was the case with the Liberal Cup, the Run of the Mill has grown into a critical piece of the fabric of its community. Now, we are glad to report, many other brew pubs and tasting rooms have followed – and the more the merrier.
I sat down with Geoff recently to briefly describe our experience with opening the Run of the Mill. He obliged, albeit begrudgingly, provided we could share a brown ale after the fact, of course.