Small BF food hub still on target

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BELLOWS FALLS — Renovations at the Sustainable Valley Group's building on The Island will be completed later this summer, despite the fact that the Rockingham Select Board opted not to give the project a $40,000 loan to help convert it to a small food business incubator.

Rockingham Development Director Gary Fox said Tuesday that the project had received notification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development business grant that would help make up the difference.

The building, which decades ago was the home to the Vermont Farm Machinery Co., will have two anchor tenants, Fox said, including Smokin Bowls, a small Rockingham food stand with a strong following, which is located at Exit 6 off Interstate 91. Also included in the plans would be a new "nano" brewery, Plymouth Union

Brewers LLC.

Fox said the commercial kitchen, which will be used by Smokin Bowls, will also be available to other food companies interested in renting the commercial kitchen "for a day or an hour."

He said the new brewery is proposed by the principals of the currently existing Salt Ash Brew Pub in Plymouth. The two men, Paul Kowalski and Thomas Dedrick, have plans to install a small-scale brewing system, and "ferment and condition beer and package it for sale."

The two partners said they planned on using the commercial kitchen as well, to make their own Vermont food products.

They said the Plymouth location "proved incapable of supporting a brewery."

Fox had outlined the plans for the building for the Rockingham Select Board last week, but the board passed on helping to fund the project.

"There's definitely support for the project, but the board was concerned about their fiduciary responsibility without having collateral. There was some discomfort," he said.

Fox said he was pursuing other grants for the project, including $22,000 in downtown tax credits. "The goal is to provide a resource that can be rented by other food companies," he said.

"The construction is about one-third of the way done," he said, estimating construction would be completed in August or September. Sustainable Valley Group would own the kitchen and lease it, he said.

Longterm plans include renovating the neighboring Bellows Falls train station into a "localvore teaching restaurant and brew pub."

According to the business plan submitted by Sarah James of Smokin Bowls, she said she wanted to expand her menu at the food stand, as well as bottle her soups and her famous "Cheech and Chong" chili. She uses local meats and produce, raised by local farmers.

James is also a local caterer, doing business under the name Smokin Bowls.

James' business plan mentioned the possibility of new salad dressing flavors, and even a layered dessert bar.

Plymouth Union Brewers would use space in the Sustainable Valley building to start brewing on a small scale, making 10 to 15 gallon batches of beer, with plans to install a larger, five-barrel system as soon as practicable, to take advantage of the growing Vermont 'beer tourism' market..

"Our proximity to Brattleboro, which has three breweries, and Windsor, which has one, make us an easy stop for beer tourists," wrote Paul Kowalski and Tad Dedrick of the new brewery.

The long-term plan said that the two main tenants would only utilize 25 percent of the production capacity of the spaces.

"So there is still ample potential for small farmers," the plan stated.

Fox said while he didn't press the grant application with the select board, he said it was clear the board wasn't going to support it.

At one point during the discussion, Selectman Peter Golec said the way the loan was structured "the town has no way of getting the money back" if the project failed.

Fox said when he was hired last year as Rockingham's development director, protecting the town's revolving loan fund and making sure it was on sound financial foundation was one of the top priorities of his job.

He said while the fund currently has about $360,000 in it, he said $1.7 million was loaned out. The biggest loans, totaling about $1 million, were to the real estate developers of the Howard Block and the Exner Block, both in downtown Bellows Falls. A total of 12 smaller businesses had loans, totaling $312,000, he said.

He said currently all the loans were up-to-date with the exception of one, and late fees had been instituted.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or 802 254-2311, ext. 154.

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