Surly Brewing Co. fought hard this year for a state law allowing it to serve pints of beer at a massive new brewery. Now the hunt begins for the perfect location -- and metro-area cities are jumping on the beer wagon.
Officials around the region are vying for Surly's attention as the company and a consultant look for the best real estate for its $20 million "destination" brewery, complete with restaurant, beer garden and event center. The six-year-old Brooklyn Center-based company, whose cult following extends far beyond Minnesota, is expected to make the venture a major draw for enthusiasts of its Furious, Bender, CynicAle and other craft brews.
"This is something people are going to travel to," said owner Omar Ansari, who plans to build in the metro area. "It's not like it's just a neighborhood tavern."
Surly has grabbed the attention of local economic officials, who also see it as a regional attraction, not just an employer. "People would come here just for that," said Annie Deckert, the director of economic development in Elk River, one of several cities that reached out to Surly.
Minneapolis and St. Paul both changed ordinances this summer to allow Surly to set up shop. Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center are preparing to do likewise, and Elk River and Chaska also have called. That's on top of countless contractors, builders and architects who contacted the brewery after the law passed to allow on-site sales for beer-makers.
Few officials have been as visible as Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. When Rybak signed the ordinance allowing a liquor manufacturer to sell pints of their product at the brewery -- with Ansari standing behind him -- he tweeted, "Drink beer it's now Minneapolis law!" His spokesman, John Stiles, said Rybak talks "to Surly folks on a regular basis and is helping to lead the team that is working aggressively to get them here."
The search for a location might have larger implications for the public if Surly decides to ask for help in financing part of the project, which is expected to generate about 150 permanent jobs. Such assistance, which often uses projected property tax increases to defer project costs, is a common public incentive for large developments.
Ansari said they have not discussed whether to seek public help. One of Surly's consultants, Tom Hauschild of the TEGRA Group, said that if cities offer incentives -- and the company decides to pursue them -- "that could be some great icing on the cake."
As the project grows more complex, Surly announced last week that it had hired TEGRA, a local real estate consulting firm. The company is already sending out requests for information to cities, development firms and property owners. There is even an e-mail address -- firstname.lastname@example.org -- where the public can send ideas.
"In our world, often the least expected solution turns out to be the best one," Hauschild said. "So ... we're casting the net fairly wide here."
They expect to winnow the list to three to five possibilities in the next 45 days, aiming for an agreement in the first quarter of 2012.
It's a complicated quest, since they expect to need more than five acres in an industrial zone that still has enough "sizzle," as Hauschild puts it, to sustain the brewpub. That means visibility and accessibility are key factors.
Ansari said he once dreamed of being on the Minneapolis riverfront, former home of the Grain Belt Brewery, but space constraints might make that difficult.
Said Ann Calvert, the city development coordinator assigned to Surly: "There aren't a lot of great big easily available sites on the riverfront." However, one such site is the 48 acres on the west bank of the Mississippi River now occupied by the city's Upper Harbor Terminal. The city's upper river plan calls for reserving the site for housing and parks once the terminal is phased out, although city planners have been reviewing whether to recommend any changes in the plan. Another possible drawback is the presence of Xcel Energy's generating plant across the river.
She said she has reviewed at least 20 sites with Ansari. "He's serious enough that we have had multiple discussions," Calvert said. "He seems to be serious about finding a site in Minneapolis."
As other cities try to lure Surly, its hometown hopes the brewer stays put.
Curt Boganey, Brooklyn Center's city manager, said that several locations have been identified that could accommodate the new brewery. He said Surly is "a great brand for the city of Brooklyn Center," and the city is doing its best to keep them in town. The necessary tap-room ordinance is expected to be on the City Council's agenda next Monday.
"We've had several conversations with Omar ... and expressed very clearly our desire and interest in having his business expand here in the city of Brooklyn Center," Boganey said. "I think he knows without a doubt that we'll do whatever we can within reason to help him do that."
Staff writer Steve Brandt contributed to this report. Eric Roper • 651-222-1210 Twitter: @StribRoper