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October 2014
2014 Nominations:
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Can ‘Brew Crew’ pave way to Tacoma district’s future?

Investor group hopes to create vibrant arts and small business hub near downtown

Can three local investors rejuvenate Tacoma’s Brewery District? The Brew Crew sure hopes so.

“The Brew Crew,” in case you haven’t heard, is the catchy, though admittedly self-imposed, moniker for the trio of PJ Hummel, principal of event planning firm PJ Hummel and Company; Denny Anderson of Real Estate Investment Services; and John Lewis of real estate development company AmmGen.

Together, the group has just announced an ambitious plan: the purchase of three surplus properties — all nestled adjacent to each other in the downtown district and currently owned by the City — to create a vibrant centralized hub for Tacoma, complete with a craft microbrewery and distillery, a market with fresh produce and seafood, and a multifamily housing complex. Their vision also involves an emphasis on the arts, including the incubation of area entrepreneurs and artisans so the district can become a focal point where local wares and businesses can be showcased.

It’s a grand design for three spaces currently earmarked for much more mundane use. Currently, the properties — 2308 Holgate St., 2335 Jefferson Ave., and 2304 C St. — are being used to store supplies and trucks for the City of Tacoma Public Works Department. The Brew Crew, though, sees so much more, and they’re enamored with the potential, inspired by neighborhoods like Seattle’s Pike Place and Portland’s Pearl District.

“We are planning to turn this area into a catalyst for hundreds of jobs with events, shops, living spaces, offices and more,” Hummel said. “Think about it. We’re envisioning young people, foot traffic, local companies, creative energy flowing. Wouldn’t it be great to see the Brewery District so alive?”

The Brew Crew, one should note, is assembled more as a tightly-knit confederation of interested properties rather than a legally united ownership group. Each of the three has an eye on a separate property, and each has an independent plan for the space.

Hummel, for example, is seeking to purchase the maintenance building on Holgate Avenue to repurpose as a headquarters for her business. With its multiple street level loading bays, Hummel said, the building would be a perfect place to store her large inventory of props and décor, currently housed in an F Street warehouse in the Tideflats. And with the site a stone’s throw from the heart of Tacoma, Hummel added that the building would give her company a home base for events.

“We (PJ Hummel and Co.) have been here in the Tideflats for the last 12 years, and I have always wanted to own my own building,” she said. “More specifically, a building that could have a venue in it where special events can happen. This place here in the Tideflats isn’t zoned for events.”

Anderson’s target is the building on C Street, a former pony barn for the horses that pulled the fire trucks at the turn of the century. His plan is to recruit restaurants, bars or microbreweries to move into the historic building. Between the Holgate and C Street buildings, Hummel said the group wants to launch a 24-hour indoor/outdoor market where local farmers, food makers and other entrepreneurs can lease space.

That leaves the lot at 2335 Jefferson: “the yard,” a vacant lot where the City currently parks its dump trucks. Lewis wants to buy the property to turn it into the aforementioned multifamily complex, a living space with appeal to students at nearby University of Washington Tacoma.

Anderson and Hummel both have bank approval of funds for their prospective purchases, Lewis said, with his own piece of the puzzle coming through EB-5 program capital — immigrant investor financing. Hummel’s current budget, she said, stands at $1 million, including purchase (the building is for sale for $765,000) and initial renovation of 2308 Holgate. Anderson’s offering some $600,000 for the pony barn — a property Lewis said was appraised for $550,000. And Lewis is offering $810,000 for the vacant lot, with designs on a $38 million construction project to make the housing complex a reality.

And while the three envision standalone projects, they have come to understand the symbiotic nature of the facilities they wish to build. Partnering, said Hummel, seemed a natural choice.

“The three of us got together and realized that if we all three developed these properties at the same time, we could create synergy,” Hummel said. “For example, John’s investors aren’t going to be able to put in apartments if there’s nothing for the kids to do.”

Originally, Lewis had actually attempted to develop apartments close to the UWT campus in 2009, before the market fully tanked. Restaurant chains, he said, were interested in coming in; he cites the previous owners of The Ram Restaurant and Brewery as former partners in the endeavor.

“We’ve still got the emails back and forth,” he laughed.

Of course, though, the Recession reared its ugly head, and that was that. Lewis and his group had met with the school back then, but that was years and two chancellors ago. Still, Lewis remains confident that the multifamily concept is suited to the area and its proximity to campus, not to mention the hand-in-hand growth the Brew Crew vision is forecasting.

“There’s so much potential if it all comes together,” Lewis said. “All the UW has to do is want to be in this neighborhood, and we’ll make this work. The kids can just walk down C Street (to get to campus), and everything is groovy.”

If successful, Lewis said, the culmination of the vision, currently projected as a 10-year plan, could inject $100 million into the Brewery District.

“The property value (of the three buildings) at 80 percent occupied is $86 million,” Lewis said.

The three have been working toward their goal — the Brew crusade, if you will — for a number of months now. For one, before the group can get to work, the Brew Crew has to appeal to the City to sell the properties.

“We went to the City Council and the City and said, ‘Hey, are you going to put this (property) up for sale?’” said Hummel. “They said yes, but we don’t know when. We sort of politicked and asked if they could put them up for sale sooner rather than later.”

That, Hummel said, was last spring. The City originally sent out requests for proposals on the properties last fall, with the process being extended three times. The last extension brought the deadline to March 11, with time inevitably reserved afterward for committee meetings and public forums.

The hang-up on the City side?

For one thing, according to Ricardo Noguera, director of Tacoma’s Community and Economic Development Department, there’s a displacement issue.

“The problem for the City is, how do we find a new home for (the) Building and Grounds (Department) that fills their needs and fits their long term plans?” he said.

Lewis said the City has indicated an interest in leasing back the property to house Building and Grounds if it ultimately sells to the Brew Crew, a concession the group is willing to temporarily grant.

“We said we’d be OK with that,” Lewis said, “but we can only go 18 months. When you’re building multifamily, it’s like growing a crop. You don’t bring in the crop in the wrong time of year, and so I can’t wait beyond that time. We’d rather start the project right away, but we’re willing to do that (lease back), too.”

And Hummel points out that the Brew Crew’s goal align with the City’s recently completed South Downtown Subarea Plan, which calls for just this brand of mixed-use, small business-centered development in the Brewery District.

Whatever the case, there has already been some hubbub generated by the Brew Crew’s ambitions. Hummel said that she has already been contacted by other potential stakeholders excited for the district’s future.

“We’ve had phone calls,” Hummel said. “There was a building owner down in that area that called and said, ‘I saw that (the news) and I want to talk to you, because I think I can add on.’ Then I got a phone call from somebody who said he was interested in buying another building in the area. He just wanted my opinion of, ‘If I buy this building, do you really think something can happen down there?’”

She only hopes, she added, that the City catches the buzz.

“We’re hoping that the City really sees what we’re offering,” Hummel said. “We have big plans.”

“It’s the last key neighborhood in downtown Tacoma,” Lewis said. “Most people would’ve walked away by now, but we want to make this happen.”