$500k grant marks small step toward a new future for Olympia brewery site

It comes as prior attempts to revive the decayed property haven’t taken off in the 20 years since beer-making ended.

By: - June 17, 2023 5:00 am

U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., along with EPA Region 10 administrator Casey Sixkiller, stand in front of a fire-damaged building at the former Olympia Beer brewing complex, in Tumwater, Wash., June 16, 2023. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

For generations, Olympia Brewing Co., in Tumwater, Washington, churned out bottles and cans of beer stamped with the brand’s famous slogan: “It’s the Water.” When it comes to reviving the company’s dilapidated former brewery site, it’s everything else that decades of industrial activity might have left behind that poses a problem.

A new grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields program could help unlock a fresh start for the cluster of properties, which the city says are altogether spread over more than 100 acres with close to one million square feet of structures.

Redevelopment plans have struggled to take off there for 20 years. But federal and local leaders see reason for optimism with the $500,000 award the city of Tumwater will receive from EPA. That money will help to pay for an assessment of contaminants at the site and to develop cleanup plans.

U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., along with EPA Region 10 administrator Casey Sixkiller were in town on Friday to highlight the funding. They joined Tumwater Mayor Debbie Sullivan and other local officials on a visit to the site.

Strickland said the grant is a good example of how the federal government can productively partner with local governments and of how making public investments can help attract private ones.

“When you look at a site this size, the number of acres it takes up, you have to start somewhere,” she added.

For residents in the Olympia area, the tattered complex’s boxy, tan buildings are a familiar sight, located along Capitol Boulevard., just off Interstate 5.

A view of the former Olympia Brewing Co. site in Tumwater, Wash., June 16, 2023. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

In local officials’ telling, no developer is willing to place a serious bet on the site without knowing more about what pollution could exist there.

Determining what might’ve seeped into the ground, or the extent of the abatement required in demolishing or rehabbing old buildings, would factor into how much moving the property into a new era of use could cost and what’s even feasible. For instance, harsher contamination could make apartment housing on the site unrealistic.

It’s not outlandish to think a viable project could surface. Other commercial and residential development is sprouting on the old brewery grounds’ edges.

Looking back, looking ahead

The company that would become Olympia Brewing began making beer in the region in 1896. It went on to expand its footprint along the Deschutes River around Tumwater Falls. Buildings in the area the grant will focus on were built from the 1940s to the 1970s, according to a 2006 city report. They include structures like a warehouse with rail access and brewhouses.

Hundreds of people worked at the site during its heyday. “It was really the heart and the soul of the community,” said retiring Tumwater City Administrator John Doan.

An aerial view of the Olympia Brewing Co. complex in the 1970s. The warehouse property that is one part of the new grant-funded environmental study is seen in the bottom right. Other brewery structures are visible to the left of it. (Washington State Archives)

Pabst Brewing Co. purchased Olympia Brewing in 1983. Operations continued at the Tumwater facilities until 2003 when the plant, by then owned by Miller Brewing, shut down. Since then, the site has sunken into disrepair as it has changed hands.

Under a sale that took place in 2015, multiple tracts, including a 22.2-acre parcel with a warehouse and a 7.2-acre chunk with a former office and other buildings were sold by a firm called Capital Salvage Inc. to Tumwater Development LLC, led by Chandulal Patel.

A map of the former Olympia Brewing site (click to expand) shows the ages and old uses of various buildings on the grounds. (City of Tumwater)

That preceded the latest rocky chapter for the property, which included a three-alarm blaze in 2018 that burnt up a building, and a 2019 incident involving a vandalized transformer that led to about 600 gallons of oil tainted with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, spilling into the Deschutes River, which flows to Puget Sound.

The spill triggered a state-led cleanup that relied on divers suctioning up contaminated sediment underwater, and other labor-intensive measures. The Department of Ecology sought $11.37 million from Tumwater Development to cover cleanup costs, along with a $14,000 penalty. An Ecology spokesperson said Saturday that the property owner appealed the decision, has not paid any of these amounts yet, and the case is pending.

Neither Patel nor his representatives appeared with the government leaders on Friday’s site visit. It’s not clear what role, if any, his firm could eventually have in revitalizing the brewery site. Local officials have indicated he is still expressing interest in doing some kind of development at the property.

For now, depending on your perspective, the site rests as either a decaying and troubled industrial relic or an untapped economic opportunity. To what extent it is one versus the other could depend in part on what the grant-funded study turns up.

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Bill Lucia
Bill Lucia

Bill Lucia is the Standard’s editor-in-chief. He’s covered state and local policy and politics for a decade, nationwide for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and in Seattle for Crosscut.