Julia Turner and her father, Ed, toast as they sample the beer and cider at Lake Stevens Brewing Co., the first brewery in the city. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

A sense of community brewing in Lake Stevens

LAKE STEVENS — With a number of different economic hubs, Lake Stevens’ retail areas are fractured.

There is a small business district downtown wrapping around the northeast corner of the lake; Frontier Village up above the lake where Highway 204 spits commuters out onto Highway 9; and a swath of retail businesses running east and west along the 20th Street corridor south of the lake.

Lake Stevens mayor John Spencer wants to bring all of the areas together. He’d love it if they could do it over a beer.

“We need businesses that cater to families and recreation, and nowadays often that means food and beer,” said Spencer, who holds an urban planning degree from the University of Washington. “We want more walkable areas downtown and other areas. We want people to meet friends here, have a beer or a glass of wine and a good meal.”

Spencer has only been mayor for 15 months, but he’s lived in Lake Stevens for 31 years so he knows the history. As population boomed at the turn of the century, the city focused on residential construction, leaving behind the city’s retail base and civic infrastructure. The result is an out-of-date downtown that isn’t friendly to foot traffic and doesn’t attract shoppers, and a dispersed business corridor with a few large retailers and a number of strip malls spread around the lake.

“We have far too much leakage,” Spencer said, referring to Lake Stevens residents spending their money in surrounding communities as opposed to their own. “We don’t have the infrastructure that matches our population, and those retail sales that leave the city take their sales tax with them.”

The city’s economic development plan has many moving parts, including a downtown subarea plan that Spencer said incorporates a possible hotel and conference center, high-end retail shops, brewpubs, tasting rooms and restaurants. It also takes into account moving a number of civic buildings like the police station, library and possibly city hall to Chapel Hill on the west side of the lake.

Up until December of last year, Lake Stevens was one of the only Snohomish County cities without a brewery in its city limits.

It’s something Spencer was determined to change. He engaged brewers, distillers and winemakers at last summer’s Carleton Brewfest. He pitched the city’s interest in bringing in third-place style businesses like brewpubs, taprooms and tasting rooms, and promised flexibility in permitting and other help to get the job done.

One of the brewers who heard that pitch was R.J. Whitlow at 5 Rights Brewing. Whitlow and his wife, Kristi, have been running the brewery out of their garage in southeast Marysville for a little over a year and were looking for a permanent home.

Spencer reached out to them and brought them in for a meeting with the city’s planning department. Whitlow came away impressed.

“We went in there and sat down and John said, ‘I know you have options in Marysville and Everett, but we want you here in Lake Stevens,’” Whitlow said. “He’d done his research. He wanted us to know that he’d make it as easy as legally possible to secure permits and get the ball rolling once we found a property.”

Early on in the process, the Whitlows didn’t have much luck doing just that. There were few leasable properties in industrial park settings popular with craft breweries and many of the retail spots were too small for the large brewhouse they had planned.

This past summer, though, they happened upon the perfect spot. The 4,300-square-foot building between Petco and Everett Clinic on Vernon Road not only was in view of busy Highway 204 but it was large enough to house the 10-barrel brew system R.J. plans on building, and has plenty of room to grow into an eventual restaurant and taproom.

“We want to be a destination brewery where not only locals meet but a place that people come up Highway 9 and over the trestle to visit,” R.J. said. “We want to be the kind of place [where] young families can come and eat and feel at home. That’s something the beer culture really needs here in Lake Stevens.”

The city has bent over backward to accommodate 5 Rights. Soon after they closed on the property, the Whitlows welcomed a number of the city’s permitting agents to the brewery to go over specifics on their application. The city also quickly processed the brewery’s sign variance so 5 Rights could put up a 20-foot sign and have a presence off Highway 204 as soon as possible.

“We’re as tiny as can be, but they treated us like we were a five-star company,” Kristi said.

R.J. was also quick to praise new Fire Marshal Mike Messer, who was hired by the city in April.

“He’s given us advice on how to make things work and also clarified information throughout the pre-application process,” said R.J., who plans to open the brewery in late spring. “He’s been fantastic.”

5 Rights will not be the first brewery in Lake Stevens. That distinction belongs to Lake Stevens Brewing Co. Opened this past December by friends Brock Duerr and Jason Parzyk, the brewery is in a small commercial building off Grade Road near downtown that has been a floral shop and pilates studio in the past.

Parzyk, who grew up in Lake Stevens, said they’ve received great feedback from the city — some of it directly.

“We’ve had members of the city council, the mayor, teachers, police officers and firefighters all come in and have a beer,” Parzyk said. “They all say they’re excited we’re here.”

Duerr said that part of the allure of opening the brewery in Lake Stevens was the small-town vibe and the dearth of competition. The help from the city has also been big. He mentioned that city officials talked about the possibility of extending a bike lane from Centennial Trail, 200 yards east of where the brewery sits, to the downtown core to draw cyclists and joggers.

Spencer knows the delicate balance it takes to add retail businesses while also keeping neighborhoods and residential areas intact. It’s hard to overhaul the identity of a city and keep everyone happy. That doesn’t even take into account the traffic headaches that need to be solved along Highway 9 and the U.S. 2 trestle.

But it doesn’t keep Spencer from dreaming.

“I’d love to see people one day boating over from the other side of the lake, visiting a brewpub or lounge downtown and then doing some shopping,” Spencer said. “People will spend money here if you create something that keeps them here.”

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