City grants help move Hamm’s complex along

John Warner, majority owner of Flat Earth Brewing, stands inside the room where the beer will be brewed. The building is a long way from being cleared out, and is still full of cracked paint and graffiti. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

The Hamm’s site lies just east of Payne Avenue. (graphic illustration by Nik VanDenMeerendonk/Review)

A contractor stands in what will be the entryway to Flat Earth Brewing. The space used to be an on-site taproom for Hamm’s employees. (photos by Patrick Larkin/Review)

Dave Gontarek from the city’s Planning and Economic Development department points to the building that will be abated of asbestos and then demolished, thanks to a Metropolitan Council grant. (photos by Patrick Larkin/Review)

Flat Earth Brewing is hoping to put a beer garden into the ruins of a demolished structure beside their buildings. (photos by Patrick Larkin/Review)

Once empty, the site will have a brewery, a distillery and urban farming business

Things are cruising along at the city-owned half of the Hamm’s complex.

So much so that the East Side could see businesses up and running on the site by this fall.

Urban Organics, which will be growing hydroponic lettuce and raising tilapia, has water in its fish tanks and hopes to do a test run of fish before the summer ends; Flat Earth Brewing is scrubbing its building, yanking out rusty machinery and sandblasting walls; and a future distillery owner is working with an architect to draw up plans for another one of the buildings.

All of this is moving along with the help of the city’s Neighborhood Sales Tax Revitalization grants, along with abatement aid from Metropolitan Council.

Flat Earth was just awarded a $375,000 STAR grant on Wednesday, July 10, through the St. Paul City Council, and the distillery, yet to be named, was given $275,000. Urban Organics received STAR funds last year.

Neighborhood STAR grants are paid for with 50 percent of the city’s sales tax proceeds.

The Flat Earth grant is to help with the costs of putting a brewery into vacant buildings at the Hamm’s complex, a project that’s already well underway. That’s on top of an estimated $800,000 the brewery’s majority owner, John Warner, expects to be putting into the place to get it up and running. He’s negotiating a purchasing price for the building with the city - it should be somewhere around $30,000, said Dave Gontarek, from the city Planning and Economic Development department.

Warner is shooting for a Nov. 1 opening date, but the entire project won’t be done for three or four years, he estimated.

Long ways to go

At the moment, the Flat Earth building is just an empty shell.

“There’s nothing here,” said Warner. “We’ve got a long ways to go.”

He described the place as “god-awful” when the project started.

“When we’re done, it will be beautiful,” he added. “The neighborhood is going to be really proud.”

So far, Warner estimates he’s invested about $300,000 in the project. He hopes the new building will allow the brewery to eventually distribute on a larger scale. He’s also hoping to open up a taproom, where customers can come to drink beer brewed on site.

Later on, the plan is to add an outdoor patio area that would be built into the ruins of another building on the complex.

Warner said he expects to hire between 25 and 40 people once the place is fully up and running.

“Lots of folks have already come by looking for work,” he said. “I tell them: ‘Come and see us in the fall, and we’ll see how it goes.’”

Cleaning up the bad stuff

Metropolitain Council also awarded $124,600 in grants this year to help the city do asbestos abatement, and lead-based paint and asbestos surveys on the Hamm’s site. It will also help to demolish a large building in the center of the place that’s filled with mold.

Beyond that, the city’s still got a fair amount of work to do at the site — restore a road which will go into the middle of the complex, install gas, water and electric lines, and fix a retaining wall, for starters. There was a large breach in the retaining wall on the south side of the properties after this year’s heavy rains, and the damage is being repaired.

Gontarek, who is heading the Hamm’s project for the city PED department, said the wall will likely be considered a routine maintenance item, and that there will be yearly reviews of it by an engineer.

All aspects of the Hamm’s complex besides the buildings themselves will be maintained by the city, Gontarek added.

Distilling spirits

Bob McMannis is a New York transplant who’s been studying up on booze making for a while -- he’s toured numerous distilleries. He said he saw an opportunity to try it out himself after the Legislature passed the so-called Surly bill in May 2011. The new law drastically reduced the cost of obtaining state licenses for micro-distilleries -- before it cost about $30,000, he said. Now it costs as little as $2,000.

As for the Hamm’s site, said he was drawn to the high-quality well water there, something that is crucial for making alcohol. Urban Organics has similarly tapped into the wells deep below the grounds. The water is well suited for raising fish, too, because it has fewer additives than city tap water.

McMannis is a little earlier in the process than Flat Earth or Urban Organics -- most of the work he’s done thus far has been planning oriented.

“Starting with a derelict, 20-year-old building makes starting up in a highly regulated industry ... difficult,” he said, but it’s “all achievable.”

He said he hopes to be making liquor by Halloween and plans to distill mostly gin, along with some rye and bourbon whiskeys.

“If we can put a man on the moon, we can put a distillery on Minnehaha Avenue,” he asserted.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at

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