Darrington eager to see Old City Hall reborn as distillery

DARRINGTON — This town’s Old City Hall could open again next year as a craft distillery, microbrewery and pub.

Bruce Blacker, 46, of Oso, is fixing up the former municipal building, which also has been home to the library and the food bank. Built in the 1940s at the corner of Darrington and Emens streets, the two-story concrete-block building has a character that Blacker wants to preserve.

Mayor Dan Rankin couldn’t be more pleased.

With no money in the town budget and no avenues to obtain grant money, Darrington had no way to save Old City Hall, a classic example of architecture of that era, Rankin said. Until Blacker came along with his development idea, people in town had given up hope that the historic building could be preserved.

Town offices and Darrington’s library have been in the current complex on Cascade Street for many years.

Blacker, whose wife, Sonya, grew up in Darrington, approached Rankin about leasing Old City Hall earlier this year and the Town Council jumped at the idea, Rankin said. It took a few months to put the agreement together, but Blacker now is leasing the 5,000-square-foot building for $1,000 a year with an option to buy it after two years.

“In order to save Old City Hall, this was something we had to do,” Rankin said. “The proposed distillery changes the dynamic in Darrington. It will breathe life into the old building and the neighborhood and the town. People are very excited about this.”

Blacker plans to do much of the work himself. He estimates he will spend more than $60,000 to fix Old City Hall, including roof and exterior repairs, new electrical and plumbing and a completely new interior. Old City Hall will remain the name of the building, he said.

“The lease with the town makes it easy to give this a shot. I am trying to get a lot done this summer. I can work on the interior this winter,” Blacker said. “There’s a lot on my plate, but I hope to be open within a year.”

Blacker plans to make rum from molasses and distill vodka from Washington-grown grains*. He’s looking for a beer brewer (“someone who wants to take the next step and move out of his garage”) to join him.

Blacker’s proposed in-house pub is to be furnished with tables and chairs he plans to make at his sawmill in Oso.

With Blacker at work on his project, Tony Gobroski thinks Darrington is in for a renaissance.

Gobroski, 52, opened Mountain Loop Books &Coffee last year around the corner from Old City Hall.

“Bruce Blacker’s plans validated my idea about Darrington,” Gobroski said. “We have the community support to make this work. We’re in for the long haul.”

It might be hard to see it right now, with empty storefronts and quiet streets in what used to be a busy logging town. Slowly, however, Darrington is reinventing itself, he said.

“I tell people either I’m a fool or I’m a visionary,” Gobroski said. “Time will tell.”

Gobroski plans a grand opening Aug. 18 of the cafe part of his Mountain Loop bookstore, located at 1085 Darrington St. Author Heidi Thomas plans to be on hand to read from her books, “Cowgirl Dreams” and “Follow the Dream.”

Gobroski and his wife, Amy, a teacher, moved from Alaska a few years ago into what had been his grandparents’ house in Darrington.

“Having a bookstore was on my bucket list,” he said. “It didn’t make sense, but the downturn in the economy allowed me to buy, repair and furnish my shop for less money. People have been very supportive. They wanted a coffee house and a place to hang out.”

Darrington, with its view of Whitehorse Mountain and proximity to outdoor recreation, has a rodeo grounds, an archery range, a softball and baseball park, a music festival amphitheater, a community center with one of the best old gymnasiums in the state, a vibrant arts community, an active economic development group, a school booster club, a historical society and a volunteer group helping maintain access to Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest roads and trails.

That’s a lot of positives for a town so small that its annual budget isn’t much more than $1 million, said town clerk Lyla Boyd.

“We have visions that the bookstore and the distillery will spur some more activity on Darrington Street and create a new ambiance that will benefit existing businesses and inspire new ones,” Boyd said.

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

* Correction, August 6, 2012: This article has been updated to clarify the distillery’s plans.

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