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Couple crafting downtown microbrewery

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Thomas Reese and his wife, Tabitha, are working to prepare this space, shown here along East Colonial Avenue Tuesday, June 27, as the home of their future microbrewery.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A local couple plans to open a microbrewery in downtown Elizabeth City this autumn, opening the Harbor of Hospitality to the craft beer culture that is sweeping North Carolina and much of the nation.

"There is a void here," Thomas Reese said early last week as he stood with his wife, Tabitha, inside the future Ghost Harbor Brewing Co., at 606-B East Colonial Avenue.

"So, we're in this little bubble," Reese said. "It's 40 miles each way before you hit a microbrewery. So, we feel that this is a good little spot."

Crews since February have been working to transform long unused building behind Hoppin’ Johnz New South Cuisine into the future Ghost Harbor. When completed, it will have both an on-site brewery and a tasting room. Customers will be served inside, as well as outside in an adjoining brick alley connecting East Colonial and Elizabeth Street.

Tabitha Reese said the brewing system will allow preparation of a variety of beers. The brewing equipment is coming from Colorado Brewing Systems in the Centennial State. Plans are to begin  serving customers on Oct. 27.

"We'll start off kind of small, and then we're going to work our way up and see what the community needs and wants," said Tabitha Reese. "And we'll grow from there."

Thomas Reese said the name of the future microbrewery is a fusion of a play on Elizabeth City's slogan of being the "Harbor of Hospitality" and the annual Howl-O-Scream fright nights event at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg.

The couple are Virginia Beach transplants who have called Elizabeth City their home since 2007. They have three children, ages 15, 11 and five. Thomas Reese is a manager for a heavy equipment sales company, while Tabitha Reese is a stay-at-home mother.

Thomas Reese said he has been a home brewer for quite a few years. He said he wanted to be able to try beers with different flavors. "And it's infectious," he said. "Once you start and you catch the craft beer bug, you just start hunting every style that you can get your hands on."

The couple will be leasing the space for the future Ghost Harbor Brewing from George Jackson, a longtime local landlord who also is a professor of management, business and economics at Virginia Wesleyan University. Reese said Jackson, who has been interested in having a microbrewery, is investing a lot of money and time in the space to make the future Ghost Harbor a nice spot.

Explaining why the couple decided to go into the microbrewery business in Elizabeth City, Reese said his research shows the average age of craft beer drinkers extends from 25-54 and that slightly more than half of Pasquotank County's population is in the same age group.

Additionally, he cited the presence of one of the nation's largest and most active Coast Guard bases being less than 3½ miles to the southeast.

The couple appeared before Elizabeth City's Technical Review Committee last week, seeking a recommendation for a special use permit to operate the future Ghost Harbor. The TRC is comprised of municipal agency and department experts and officials.

During the TRC meeting, police Chief Eddie Buffaloe specifically wanted to know how many will be employed at the future Ghost Harbor. Reese said he and his wife initially will be the start-up workers. He said as the business grows, they will bring in workers to run the tasting room and perhaps an assistant brewer or at least someone to help keep the equipment clean.

One of the conditions the Reeses will need to meet with municipal officials is having a sufficient disposal system on the premises. Reese told the TRC that spent grain and food waste will go to local farmers, to be used as chicken and pig feeds if there is still nutritional value for those animals. He said any high-strength wastewater will be side-streamed and collected and either be mixed in with spent grain or diluted.

Presently, there are a series of short wooden fences, with gates, in the alley adjacent to the future microbrewery. Fire Marshal Chris Carver made clear the passage needs to be opened as a public way before the future Ghost Harbor can be allowed to serve customers. Planner Kaitlen Alcock said she will follow up on that item.

Alcock said the recommendation states the future Ghost Harbor will not be allowed to sell fortified wine, liquor or mixed drinks, nor will it be allowed to have any outdoor storage and will be prohibited from generating any fumes or noise beyond what is acceptable in a general business district.

Additionally, the Reeses will have to be approved by N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control officials to be able to run the business. The police department, fire department, planning officials, city building inspectors and the city administration also will have to be among those signing off on ABC documents.

City Community Development Director Matthew Schelly said the Reeses will take the TRC's recommendations to the Aug. 1 Planning Commission meeting and to the Sept. 19 Board of Adjustment meeting.

Meantime, the Reeses have an advocate in Jim Nye, who the previous autumn opened Hoppin' Johnz at the site of the vacant Logan Raye’s Key West Grille.

Nye said there are still a lot of empty buildings locally, along with statements there is nothing to do in Elizabeth City and a feeling of much complacency downtown.

Nye is upbeat about Cypress Creek Grill on South Water Street having come under new ownership in the spring of 2016. He also said he hopes the adjacent site of the former Thumpers Downtown Bar and Grille, vacant since autumn 2015, will have a new tenant someday.

"I don't believe that one good restaurant makes a town," he said. "I'd be pretty full of myself if I thought people drove all the way to town to see me."

He said he believes people, after dining downtown, want to have somewhere else to go afterward within downtown – or want to be able to make up their minds what to do once they arrive downtown.

"But, more is better," he said.

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