The Good Ol’ Days Are Back: The Revival of the Potosi Brewery
Located in Southwestern Wisconsin near the banks of the Mississippi River, Potosi is known as the state’s “Catfish Capital.” However, thanks to an innovative and community-led redevelopment project, this town of 700 people is becoming internationally-recognized for another one of its homegrown resources: locally-brewed beer.
In 2008, after being abandoned for over 30 years, the Potosi Brewery once again began producing beer from its facility on South Main Street. The newly restored historic site is also now home to the American Breweriana Association’s National Brewery Museum and other attractions, making it a major tourist destination in the region for beer enthusiasts from all over the United States and throughout the world. During the first year of its reopening, the brewery had around 50,000 visitors from every state and over thirty countries. In 2012, it is estimated that over 70,000 people passed through the small village to visit the brewery and museum, as well as to enjoy the variety of outdoor recreational opportunities in the area such as swimming, hiking, and fishing.
Outside the brewery, a large vintage-looking advertisement proudly exclaims: “Because of you, the good ol’ days are back.” This sign is not a mere advertising gimmick. Potosi’s success story truly has been about the village’s citizens coming together as a community to invest and rally behind a long dormant local asset. While it is the brewery’s product beer that gets the headlines and brings in the visitors, Potosi’s accomplishments are rooted in the people of the village who revived and re-branded an important part of their history, embraced historic preservation, and developed a unique business model that has led to its success today.
Potosi’s Rich Brewing History
The history of beer production in Potosi dates back to 1852 when a small brewery first opened in the village. During this time, many small Wisconsin towns had a local community brewery or cheese plant to serve residents, farmers, and laborers in the days before refrigeration allowed products to travel great distances. However, it wasn’t until 1886 when Adam Schumacher bought the brewery and later formed the Potosi Brewing Company with his brothers that the brewery began to reach far beyond southwest Wisconsin. Unlike many other small breweries, Potosi was fortunate to survive the Prohibition era and would eventually go on to become the fifth largest in the state, selling beer all over the United States. Until its closing in 1972 due to the high cost of doing business, the Potosi Brewing Company was the primary employer in town for 120 years. In 1980, the brewery buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Despite its historic status and importance to the community, the brewery sat vacant and slowly deteriorated, also suffering damages from a fire that broke out in the complex. For years, it looked as if the buildings would serve only as a dilapidated reminder of Potosi’s prosperous past until 1995 when local artist and woodworker Gary David and his cousin Denis David bought the brewery buildings for the cost of back taxes with the goal of restoring them.
A Local Asset Is Brought Back to Life
Five years later in 2000, renovation efforts expanded to involve the entire community with the establishment of the 501(c)(3) non-profit Potosi Brewery Foundation, modeled after the philanthropic Newman’s Own Foundation. Upon its creation, the Foundation’s goals included renovating the brewery and ensuring it would be a “self-sustaining entity,” helping to “reconnect the community to a part of its cultural heritage,” and making the complex a tourist attraction and educational center highlighting Potosi and the greater region. In 2001, the 28,000 square-foot brewery complex was donated to the Foundation which organized the redevelopment and funding efforts that would eventually culminate with the brewery’s grand reopening in June 2008.
The $7.5 million restoration project was funded from a variety of federal, state, and private sources. As part of the USDA’s Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program, the federal government backed a $2.6 million loan which was extended by the Mound City Bank. Additional development costs were then guaranteed by another USDA loan of $660,000. The project also received a total of $849,000 from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byways Program. State historic preservation challenge grants, transportation enhancement grants, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) brownfields grants for assessment and cleanup of the buildings provided a large part of the initial funding. In February 2010, the Southwestern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SWWRPC) made a $75,000 loan from its EDA Revolving Loan Fund (RLF) for additional expansion. “Small towns like Potosi know that the only way to pull off projects like this is to seek funding from a variety of sources,” explains Linda Hanefeld, a project manager with the Wisconsin DNR. The Foundation was able to raise five million dollars for the project, and is currently making steady progress in paying off the remaining loans.
A Visit to the Brewery
In 2004, the Potosi Brewery Foundation received a major boost to its redevelopment efforts when the brewery was chosen by the American Breweriana Association (ABA), an organization of beer historians, collectors, and preservationists, to be the home of the National Brewery Museum. “It is a facility that Milwaukee, St. Louis, and others were trying to land, but here it is in Potosi,” says village president Frank Fiorenza, who has also been on the brewery’s board of directors since 1999. “Landing a national museum with more than $2.5 million of artifacts changed the scope of things.” The museum, managed by both the ABA and the Foundation, features historic beer bottles, cans, and glasses, as well as other memorabilia and artifacts displayed in both permanent and changing exhibitions. The museum also houses the ABA’s Brewery Research Library which is open to the public. In addition to the National Brewery Museum, the brewery has two other museums a transportation museum and an Interpretive Center highlighting the historical and economic importance of the nearby Mississippi River.
Visitors to the brewery complex have a variety of entertainment and retail options while on the grounds. These include a restaurant and outdoor beer garden which often serves meats, cheeses, and produce from area farms. The restaurant’s handcrafted wood bar was made by artist Gary David, whose original vision helped spark the revitalization of the brewery after he first purchased the grounds. A gift shop and art gallery showcasing work from local artists are located across the street from the brewery. Potosi’s population swells in the summer with the annual Potosi BrewFest which attracts beer enthusiasts for beer and wine tastings, food, music, and tours.
A Local and Regional Economic Impact
“The brewery project was never an end in itself,” notes Potosi’s Fiorenza, who was instrumental in seeking funding for the project. “I always saw it as a catalyst for additional economic development in the village.” In its four years of operation, the brewery has provided a major economic boost to Potosi, creating 70 direct jobs and showing consistent financial returns from an increase in beer and merchandise sales. 2012’s beer sales are 13% higher than the previous year. The restaurant has seen a 7% sales increase and gift shop sales are up 5% as many of the 70,000 visitors to the brewery have opted to bring home a reminder of their visit to Potosi. The brewery now has ten distributors in Wisconsin, three in Iowa, and four in Illinois.
Importantly, the brewery’s economic impact reaches far beyond its location on South Main Street. A 2009 Economic Impact Assessment written by the Southwestern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission with additional research from the Grant County Economic Development Corporation found that the brewery had a $4.3 million impact on the region, generated by wages, beer and merchandise sales, and additional tourist revenue. The study recognized the importance of local volunteers in supporting the brewery’s business model, noting that “[t]he organization is volunteer-driven and it would not likely have the impact it has had without those efforts.” A new report is expected to be conducted soon which will likely show an even greater impact as the brewery has expanded its operations and seen an increase in visitors since the 2009 report. Frank Fiorenza believes that a key part of the brewery’s success as a redevelopment project is that there was a long-term economic vision in addition to the historic preservation element. “We had a product to sell a beer with a recognized name. What is restored has to have some business component built into it so that it becomes self-sustaining. A revenue-generating aspect has to be part of the restoration process to pay its own way,” he advises.
The brewery is closely interconnected with other thriving local businesses in Potosi which creates wider economic development for the village. Prior to the brewery’s reopening in 2008, the Holiday Gardens Event Center and Pine Point Lodge both opened up nearby. Holiday Gardens, located across the street from the brewery, hosts a variety of special events and wedding receptions throughout the year, serving about 18,000 guests annually. “Many of our brides and grooms have their rehearsal dinner at the brewery and visit there on the day of their receptions,” says owner and manager Sharon Bierman, who runs Holiday Gardens with her family. “We also keep Pine Point Lodge and the Potosi Inn booked for their rooms with wedding party members and out-of-town guests.” The Pine Point Lodge was built a year before the brewery was completed and features four fully-furnished rental cabins near the Mississippi River. Owner Mark Bode and manager Julie Oyen recognize the value of all the businesses in the area providing compatible services. “We all have a part in making this work. The efforts of the brewery, Holiday Gardens Event Center, the art gallery, and others all play an important role to make it all work for the good of our community and town,” says Oyen.
‘It Takes Patience and Persistence’
Potosi’s ability to turn a distinctive local asset into a world-class destination is due in large part to the Potosi Brewery Foundation implementing creative strategies that have embraced historic preservation, the tourism industry, innovative financing, and an effective non-profit business model. Potosi has also benefited from additional local advantages. “We have the Mississippi River at our doorstep, beautiful four-season scenery, friendly people, and great beer,” notes Sharon Bierman of Holiday Gardens. Frank Fiorenza understands the unique nature of the project his town has undertaken and recognizes that not every small community has the assets or willpower to do so. “I would like to believe that it can be [replicated elsewhere], but it takes a commitment and dedication of time that is not always easy to find. It takes patience and persistence. It takes community support. It takes the right people to organize and spearhead efforts,” he says. “Not every community has an historic building that can be restored, but perhaps there is a non-profit enterprise that can be supported to advance economic vitality.”
Award-winning beer and brewing history may be what brings visitors from all over the world to this small Wisconsin town. But it is the people of Potosi that have made this project work, from local residents initially deciding to buy to the property, to the community’s involvement in the planning and visioning stages, to the over 100 volunteers who support the Foundation in a variety of capacities each year. An emphasis on local local beer, local food, and the local people themselves have all contributed to the success seen here. While the sign outside the brewery proclaims that Potosi’s “good ol’ days” have returned, the town’s economic development strategies that are rooted in a creative approach to main street redevelopment have set Potosi on a path to enjoy many more good days long into the future.
This case study was researched and writtenby Brett Schwartz, NADO Research Fellow.