SKOWHEGAN — When Pam Powers purchased a home-brewing kit for her husband, Jeff, as a Christmas present back in 1989, the couple never imagined home brewing would become an ever-growing business. 

Jeff Powers’ dream to open a brewery was initially put on hold to raise their two children. In 2010, however, the Powers decided to convert the barn, which once housed seven horses, into a brewery. Bigelow Brewing opened in May 2014 just steps away from their home at 473 Bigelow Hill Road.

On Nov. 8, the Powers took another step — a giant one — in growing their business as they closed on their purchase of the Solon Manufacturing Co. building at 7 Island Ave. with ambitious plans to renovate the four-story building that also has a full basement.

“We are really excited (about this purchase)” Pam Powers said. “I don’t think we saw any of this coming our way. I never thought that the gift would have taken off the way that it did.”

The couple plans to turn the first floor of the 80,000-square-foot building into a production facility, complete with a 15-barrel brew house and seating and band area. Though they are still planning the logistics, they hope to convert the second and third floors into residential living spaces and the fourth floor will be converted into restaurants, a music venue and a green rooftop deck. The basement of the building, they say, will be used for residential parking.

Pam Powers of Bigelow Brewing scans on Thursday the first floor of 7 Island Ave. where the company will install its brewery in Skowhegan. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

The Powers started looking into the building in April after the town approached them regarding its availability. Since then, they’ve been doing their due diligence conducting environmental studies and working with the town and community.

The building was built in 1922 and originally housed Maine Spinning Co., according to information provided by Christian Savage, executive director of Somerset Economic Development Co. The company reached its height from the 1940s to the 1970s, when it employed 300 and produced 1.5 t0 2 million pounds of yarn for markets around the country.

The mill was later acquired by Solon Manufacturing, which operated until 2005 and made a variety of wooden, plastic and metal products for medical, industrial and food markets. The building has changed hands several times but has remained mostly vacant since then, though Chapter 11 occupied the space for a brief period of time beginning in 2014.

Jeff and Pam Powers of Bigelow Brewing describe Thursday what will become of a rooftop patio at the former Solon Manufacturing building they have bought and will develop in Skowhegan. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

“The building is beautiful and it has good bones,” Pam Powers said. “It has some problems right now, but when it’s renovated, it will be something that people are proud of instead of an eye sore.”

Located in the downtown area, the building overlooks about 23,000 cars that pass over the Margaret Chase Smith bridges each day.

“It will be a good way to get people that are crossing the bridge to interact with the community by stopping at stores and eating at restaurants, which I think we will be able to do,” Pam Powers said.

Savage said, “The building has not lived up to its potential in a long time. It is great to see it being very impactful, not just for Bigelow’s production and business, but for everyone in Skowhegan.

“The increased production is huge for them as it will double their current production,” Savage said. “We are really excited to see local success. The Powers are great community supporters and stewards and are really involved and help when they can.”

When Bigelow Brewing opened in 2014, the brewery sold 64 barrels of beer. Last year, the Powers sold 902 barrels. This past July, they surpassed last year’s numbers and are on track to double last year’s barrel sales. By expanding production, they will be able to meet the demands that they currently face and expand into markets in northern and southern Maine.

 

A THRIVING, COLLABORATIVE INDUSTRY

Craft brewing in Maine continues to grow rapidly each year. According to the Maine Brewers’ Guild, craft beer contributed $260 million to the state’s economy in 2017, bringing 9 million tourists in and creating more than 250 jobs. According to its website, there are currently 153 active breweries in the state of Maine as of Oct. 27.

Jeff and Pam Powers of Bigelow Brewing share on Thursday a moment for warmth on the fourth floor of the former Solon Manufacturing building that overlooks downtown Skowhegan where they plan on building a restaurant. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

According to Jeff Powers, most, if not all breweries around the state, are thriving and contributing tremendously to the state’s economy.

“I don’t know of any brewery in the state that either isn’t or planning on expanding their current operations,” he said. “It seems like it has been that way every single year.

“Even with the number of breweries that are operating around the state, I don’t feel as though we have reached capacity yet, ” he said.

The Powers say that this is, in part, because breweries serve as gathering spaces for communities and bring in people of all ages.

“The smaller breweries that are popping up are taking the place in the community as a gathering place,” Jeff Powers said.

Pam Powers said, “There are a lot of different factors in the expansion of rural breweries. The biggest sentiment of craft brew lovers is visiting multiple breweries in a day. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking down the walkway with a group of six people or walking in by yourself. Here, you feel like this is where you should be.”

While the number of craft breweries continues to increase, the Powers say the companies work together to support one another around the state and country.

“It’s such a collaborative industry,” Pam Powers said. “We don’t view each other as competitors. We’re just doing what we like to do and often share ingredients and equipment with each other.”

Bigelow Brewing’s Jeff Powers looks at the view of Skowhegan from the fourth floor of the old Solon Manufacturing building on Thursday. The Powers are planning to create restaurants on the fourth floor. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

 

A FORCE FOR COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

The Powers pride themselves on using as many locally-sourced products as they can, including hops they grow on their 25-acre property. They currently work with 38 local businesses to help run their brewery, whether farmers or T-shirt printers, and they connect with other local businesses in ways that boost community growth.

Skowhegan Savings Bank, celebrating its 150th anniversary, recently reached out to the brewery to produce a pale ale made with locally sourced grains, hops and barley called On the River Bank Ale. With each sale of the ale, the bank makes a donation toward the town’s Run of River project.

“It is a very unique project to have all of these community-focused organizations come together to gain awareness,” Fawn Wentworth, marketing director at Skowhegan Savings Bank, said.

“We are really excited about this collaboration,” Kristina Cannon, executive director of Main Street Skowhegan, said. “It will be a great addition to the fundraising effort for the Run of River project. We are happy to see support of local businesses. It’s another way for us to increase fundraising efforts for the whitewater park.”

Pam Powers is excited to see the Run of River project gain traction in the community as she believes it will benefit the town’s economy by bringing in visitors from other towns as well as tourists.

“Every business will benefit from this,” she said.

Jeff Powers says that the plan is to have the brewing facility moved into the building on Island Avenue in February 2020. Right now, they are working to lay down concrete on the first floor, replacing the wood floors there now.

The Powers are not sure what they will do with their taproom on Bigelow Hill Road once the new facility opens, but they are open to the idea of turning it into an events center.

For now, they are working on having an environmental study done on the Island Avenue property and are seeking an engineer and architect to work with them.

“This job is extremely rewarding,” Jeff Powers said. “(Pam and I) have the same interest and are a great support system for each other.”


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