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TAPPING INTO POTENTIAL: Local leaders say influx of alcohol establishments good for Pocatello

February 17, 2019

POCATELLO — Mayor Brian Blad sees signs all along Main Street that his city’s economy is finally poised to tap into its potential.

The evidence can me measured in proof, or poured into a pint glass.

A new distillery is scheduled to open in early April in the 1000 block of South Main Street. A high-end whiskey bar, befitting a big city, is thriving inside the old Yellowstone Hotel, and a taproom is poised to open in early March in the same building. A few blocks to the north, plans are underway for yet another taproom. There’s also been talk about a third community microbrewery on Main Street.

In accordance with the teachings of his faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Blad abstains from alcohol. However, as a champion of economic development in the city, he sees the recent business announcements as a sign that Pocatello is readying itself for significant growth and outside investment — providing the cultural amenities that people who will be moving into town will demand.

“We’re waking up from a really long sleep, and this is an indicator that that’s happening,” Blad said. “Pocatello really is ready to move into the next step. They wouldn’t be opening if they couldn’t make a profit.”

Blad believes Pocatello is undergoing a demographic shift, with younger professionals who “demand more things” moving in. Though about half of the city’s population belongs to the LDS Church, Blad believes members of his religion won’t view the business trend negatively.

“I think the predominant faith recognizes people have a right to (drink),” Blad said.

The mayor is also confident that Pocatello’s prospering social scene won’t come at the expense of law and order. Blad reasons people who spend $200 for a couple ounces of high-end bourbon at 313 Whiskey Bar, for example, are unlikely to “tip the bottle upside down.”

Councilman Jim Johnston, who is also a member of the LDS Church, agrees the latest additions to the city’s nightlife should be viewed as harbingers of growth to come. Johnston, who is a local Realtor, said the future Northgate multi-use development is expected to provide housing for up to 20,000 people throughout the next 15 years.

“We have a lot of upper-end homes selling. Many people are bringing cash in from out of the area,” Johnston said. “Our property values increased 17 percent last year across the board.”

Councilwoman Beena Mannan is hopeful that the new businesses will entice younger people to remain in Southeast Idaho.

“We have a community of students and business professionals,” Mannan said. “They need options, places to gather and go hang out.”

She’s also pleased to have new options for entertaining out-of-town guests.

Brewing tourism

Matt Hunter, executive director of the Pocatello-Chubbuck Chamber of Commerce, plans to attend a March conference in Boise about promoting tourism centered on breweries.

“I’m going to be attending it to try to take advantage of our new breweries to see if there’s something we can do to promote this stuff,” Hunter said.

Hunter explained Idaho has also declared April as Craft Beer Month, and he sees potential for related promotions. The Chamber has made its own contribution to the emerging Main Street social scene. About nine years ago, Hunter said the Chamber launched Brew Fest, which includes about 60 beers for participants, with stops at several bars and restaurants. Last year, the Chamber started Brew Fest II, which is a street party on the Old Town thoroughfare featuring a variety of microbrews.

Stephanie Palagi, executive director of Old Town Pocatello Inc., emphasized Pocatello is a college town, and the new establishments are part the expansion of the local culture, which should keep more students in the area.

“We’re seeing higher end beverages and higher-end establishments opening and finding success in our community,” Palagi said. “We are enjoying seeing that trend happening in Old Town as well, and we look forward to continued growth in our economy.”

In Bend, Oregon, the organization Visit Bend draws in tourists annually for its Bend Ale Trail — a bar crawl capitalizing on the two dozen breweries within 20 minutes of the city’s downtown area.

“In Bend, it has been complementary to the other kinds of growth we have seen, and it supports the population we have,” said the city’s communication’s director, Anne Aurand. “The breweries have been a healthy part of our local economy and part of our draw here.”

Lt. Clint Burleigh of the Bend Police Department has patrolled the community of 90,000 for two decades and watched its brewing scene evolve. For the most part, he said police don’t respond to many problems at the breweries. Most of the issues, he explained, take place at drinking establishments that stay open late.

“We are not going to fights at our local brew pubs,” Burleigh said. “They’re family friendly.”

New businesses supporting one another

Rory Erchul admits he took a risk when he opened Pocatello’s 313 Whiskey Bar, chancing that a small town in which roughly half of the population doesn’t drink would support a concept more common in big cities.

As it turns out, there’s no shortage of whiskey lovers in Pocatello.

“The whiskey room every month has exceeded our expectations of how popular it is,” Erchul said.

Erchul will also soon open the Union Taproom in the same Yellowstone Hotel building that now houses his whiskey bar and his Yellowstone Restaurant. He’s inquired with investors planning a third brewery in Pocatello about having them make a Yellowstone-specific line of beer to feature at his taproom and restaurant.

Erchul is also eager to partner with Ed and Robin Hed, who plan to open a distillery in April at 1046 S. Main St. He’d like them to bottle a unique line of Yellowstone spirits, including locally made whiskey for the whiskey bar.

“I believe there is a synergy between what everyone is doing,” Erchul said.

Robin Hed — whose Moonlight Mountain Distillery will offer whiskey, gin, coffee liqueur and rum — believes there’s plenty of additional room for growth in craft beer and spirits before the Southeast Idaho market becomes saturated.

“We’re getting more and more people in Pocatello,” she said. “All of these places are really needed.”

When Rory Erchul and his wife, Jennifer, moved to Pocatello in 2001, they predicted the city’s growth would be on par with Bozeman, Montana. They anticipated the local scenery and opportunities for skiing, mountain biking trails, hunting and fishing would lure in outdoor enthusiasts — and that an economic Renaissance would follow.

The trend has taken longer than they expected to materialize, but they’re starting to see signs that it’s happening. For example, would-be investors have been stopping by their businesses lately, sharing their hopes to purchase local real estate while it’s still affordable.

“We’re just starting to realize that now,” he said.

About a year ago, Albert Moreno opened a taproom at 1799 Hurley Drive called Wanderlust. Moreno’s establishment boasts 31 taps and the area’s widest variety of craft beers. For patrons who wish to try something different, Moreno can offer a mango IPA or a porter brewed to taste like a Milky Way candy bar.

Moreno welcomes the new competition to town, and he believes police won’t notice associated spikes in arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol, partly due to the growth of transportation services such as Uber and Lyft.

“I think Pocatello is growing up,” Moreno said.

A word of caution from the Idaho State Police

During his tenure with the alcoholic beverage division of the Idaho State Police, Lt. Sam Ketchum has noticed a dramatic increase in the number of alcohol licenses and permits processed in Idaho.

Ketchum estimates there are now about 8,000 licenses and permits processed annually, representing an increase of about 2,000 applications compared with four years ago. Despite the rapid growth in Idaho alcohol establishments, Ketchum said the state’s DUI arrests have held remarkably flat, consistently coming in at between 7,300 and 7,400 annual arrests in recent years.

Though statistics don’t reflect a correlation between new alcohol establishments and DUIs in the Gem State, Ketchum is concerned the business trend may, nonetheless, present some negative consequences.

He fears an increase in alcohol establishments could result in more opportunity for underage youths to be served. When the state conducts compliance operations to make certain alcohol establishments are following the rules, about 20 percent fail, he said. Ketchum believes it’s also worth noting that microbrews typically pack more alcohol per ounce than mass-produced Pilsners.

Though establishments that specialize in craft beer may draw a different crowd, Ketchum warns DUIs are race-neutral, age-neutral and crowd-neutral.

“I can get just as drunk on an expensive drink as I can on inexpensive ones,” Ketchum said.

Established breweries see opportunity ahead

Penny Pink, owner and founder of Portneuf Valley Brewing, 615 First Ave., had the craft beer market in Southeast Idaho to herself for years.

Pink served her first hand-crafted beers to customers in July of 1996. With lots of new competition entering the area, she’s optimistic the region will find strength in numbers, making Pocatello a destination for lovers of craft beers.

“If we have a concentration of good restaurants and breweries ... it makes the area more vibrant,” Pink said. “I think all of that plays into the synergy.”

But after 23 years in business, she has also come to believe that Pocatello is unlike other similar-sized markets. Her son moved to Corvallis, Oregon, where there’s a high concentration of breweries, and he’s been struck that breweries in his new city have lines throughout the day and their owners don’t have to work as hard as his mother to drum up business.

“I don’t think a lot of people coming into this community really fundamentally understand how different Pocatello is from a place like Bend, Oregon, or Corvallis, or Portland,” Pink said. “If you go out to eat here, you’ll see the same 200 to 500 people wherever you go.”

Pink has her fingers crossed that the businesses entering the market have done their research and that the demand they anticipate truly exists.

So far, business has been far better than expected for Pocatello’s newest microbrewery, Jim Dandy Brewing, 305 E. Lander St., which opened last summer.

“We’re not anywhere near capacity here,” said Davis Gove, a brewer and one of the owners of Jim Dandy. “I think it’s great to see some of that culture coming to Pocatello so people don’t have to leave town any more. What’s happening in Pocatello is we’re becoming one of those towns that’s starting to attract those people instead of pushing them away.”