by Eric Ginsburg
Natty Greene’s Brewing is now in the “communication phase” of its expansion plans, and Greensboro is trying to figure out what support it can offer the company and local institution to ensure that its growth stays local.
It’s no accident that Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan updated her profile picture on Facebook to a photo of her holding up a Wildflower witbier last week.
“In honor of April being NC Beer Month,” she wrote. “Drink responsibly and drink locally!”
The underlying message — one of support for the city’s largest and oldest brewery that could possibly relocate when it expands — may have been lost on the stream of friends posting supportive comments. But the city, along with the Greensboro Partnership, is at work behind the scenes to figure out what can be done to keep Natty Greene’s planned growth here.
At this point Natty Greene’s expansion plans are well known: The brewery is looking for a 50,000-square foot facility so it can grow into a 100-barrel brewhouse and create a destination location with a restaurant on site akin to its downtown pub. It’s a $10-15 million investment, owner Kayne Fisher said, and would increase the brewery’s capacity from 30,000 barrels annually to an eventual 220,000 as part of a 10-year plan to spread across the East Coast.
Not surprisingly, an expansion on that scale for the company to become “essentially a super regional brewery,” as Fisher put it, has attracted interest outside of the Gate City, with Greenville, SC and Charlotte as serious contenders.
But Fisher emphasizes that they aren’t trying to pit cities against each other to lure the brewery there; instead, the company is doing its due diligence.
“It’s not, ‘What is it going to take to keep Natty Greene’s here’; what it is, is we’re expanding,” Fisher said. “We would be silly not to see what’s out there. Project Greene Light is happening. We’re going through the traditional methods of growth.
“We’re not some high-priced NBA free agent going, ‘Who has the highest offer?’” Fisher continued. “Do we want to leave? No. But we’ve got to weigh all our options.”
Fisher said Natty Greene’s is in the “communication phase” with Greensboro and the two other cities, but they don’t have a specific request for support outlined.
Natty Greene’s has seen cities offer other breweries all types of incentives, including land or a buildings, a water-usage arrangement and different types of financial packages for economic development, manufacturing and job-creation.
The company has expanded three times already in its 10-year history, but has never sought incentives or public support before, Fisher said. They’re new to the process and could use help figuring it out, he added.
“We’re a small business,” he said. “We need help in this process. We need help with the ask. We’re trying to figure out how to grow. Teach us. Help us. If it’s out there, great. If it’s not, we’re still doing this.”
That help has already started to materialize in Greensboro. Cyndi Dancy, the vice president of the Greensboro Partnership, said communication has been ongoing but that a recent March 27 meeting was the first time everyone was around a table together, including the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina along with Guilford County, to discuss specifics.
“We’re very excited at the opportunity to keep them here,” Dancy said. “It’s not a secret that they’re a great company and they’re poised to grow.”
Councilman Zack Matheny, who has been part of the team communicating with Natty Greene’s, said he considers the brewery’s owners to be friends and wants to do what he can so that the company continues to prosper in Greensboro.
“To me it’s kind of, ‘Hey guys, tell us what we need to do,’” Matheny said. “I look forward to working with them and figuring out what they need and what it is that we can do. At this point we need them to tell us a little bit more about what they need and what that looks like and how we can put something together.”
Fisher said Natty Greene’s is in the same stage of discussions with Greenville and Charlotte, but added that they have been very pleased with how local conversations are going.
“We’re getting great communication from them and I think we all understand now what we’re trying to do and the help we need in terms of learning,” Fisher said.
He added that they are 30 to 60 days from “the proverbial ask,” while emphasizing that there are plenty of reasons they would prefer to stay in Greensboro.
“I love what’s happening in Greensboro with all the breweries opening up,” he said. “I think we could make something big here.”
It’s unclear exactly what Greensboro could offer Natty Greene’s, but Dancy said the process would follow the incentive guidelines that other potential developments adhere to as well.
“We’re using the same formula for Natty Greene’s as Stone Brewing,” Dancy said, referring to the city’s efforts to lure the large craft brewer last year. “It’s a lot of pressure on Greensboro and Guilford County. We want to pull together all we can to keep Natty Greene’s here.”
The city and county both have incentive guidelines that look at investment or job creation, but Dancy said there wasn’t an additional program to donate a site or contribute water to the Stone Brewing deal. Greensboro was one of the finalists for the brewery’s East Coast facility but ultimately lost to Richmond, Va.
Matheny said he knows Natty Greene’s could use some help with water and sewer and that he is “willing to uncover every rock” so the city can “be as flexible as possible” for a potential expansion.
“I’d be willing to help them with water and sewer rates but I don’t know how that works,” he said. “That’s a little unorthodox but I’m willing to look at that. Natty’s has proven to be a great company.”
Other multi-million dollar manufacturing and production developments have been announced in Greensboro in the last two years and have received incentives, Dancy said. The city and county supported Proctor & Gamble’s local growth, and the city backed MWI Veterinary Supply as well. Pharmaceutical and vaccine company FFF Enterprises almost went before the county for incentives for a facility outside city limits, Dancy said, but it had already decided to locate here and chose to forgo incentives in favor of moving more quickly.
If Natty Greene’s did chose to leave Greensboro for Charlotte or Greenville, Fisher said he doesn’t think the company would need to rebrand even though the brewery is named for Greensboro’s namesake Nathanael Greene. Besides the fact that 65 cities around the country are named for the man, Fisher said it has transitioned from the historical figure to a brand.
“It just translates,” Fisher said, pointing out that they didn’t expect to be a production brewery transporting beer out of state when they opened but that the local name hasn’t held them back. The same goes for specific beers, he said, like the brewery’s core Guilford Golden or its seasonal Old Town Brown that are also locally derived names.
A major part of the brewery’s early story is expansion to the Greensboro Grasshoppers stadium, and later to the Greensboro Coliseum. Even if they moved, Greensboro would remain as the Natty Greene’s symbolic hometown, and Fisher said he hopes that wouldn’t affect the brewery’s two massive local accounts.
But again, he stressed that Natty Greene’s isn’t making a power play; it’s just doing what it must in order to grow its portfolio of bottled beers and its reach.
“We’re not LeBron James,” he said, returning to the free agent comparison. “We’ve got to do this, just for us.”