October 2, 2014
SMITHFIELD — A pair of new businesses are opening in Historic Downtown Smithfield that officials hope will breathe life into a long-ignored corner of the town.
When Peter Stephenson arrived in Smithfield more than 18 years ago to take the job as town manager, the area around the intersection of Church and Main streets “was just nasty — that whole area was aching for redevelopment.”
There was a gas station that Stephenson described as “crummy” on the southwest corner where the Isle of Wight-Smithfield-Windsor Chamber of Commerce office now stands.
A decrepit strip mall was demolished to make way for the brick offices of Smithfield Foods’ executives on North Church Street. Across the road, an old firehouse and an industrial dry cleaner stood empty. Stephenson said the town’s public works department had used the buildings for storage since the ’60s.
The area needed something that would draw more people. Over the next few months, after years in development, a winery and a brewery will open near the intersection with the hope that the new blood will spur more redevelopment.
Michelle and Denton Weiss, who live in Portsmouth, began making wine in earnest a few years ago. When their children began getting married, the couple would make batches of wine to serve at the receptions.
After getting compliments and requests for cases of wine, the family thought they might have a burgeoning business on their hands. The Weisses’ daughter, Natasha Huff, spent more than two years studying winemaking and earned a certificate from the University of California–Davis.
The town approached the couple in 2011 and offered to sell them the old dry cleaner’s building — storing tools and trucks in the historic district now seemed a waste of valuable space — but only if they would develop it.
The family bought the building to house the winery itself and leased five acres behind Windsor Castle Manor to plant grape vines in 2012. Huff will oversee the winery and has spent the last few months juggling the rapidly maturing vines and the renovation of the old building.
The Smithfield Winery will produce its first bottles later this year and the family expects the business to open to the public late next spring. They plan to debut their first official set of wines at the Smithfield Wine and Brew Fest next April.
Michelle Weiss said Smithfield already has the pedestrian-friendly feel of a European village, and development around the intersection could strengthen that.
“When we first started coming down here it was no-man’s land,” she said.
She said the brewery and the winery will help Smithfield project the old-time charm of a small town while attracting modern travelers.
“If you’re coming to a location to tour it, you want to experience a certain story. If someone’s coming to Smithfield, they want to see certain things,” Weiss said, standing in front of the winery’s distinctive wrought-iron gate doors.
Around the corner from the winery, the northern end of Main Street — known as Wharf Hill — had sat largely quiet for decades.
Once the town’s black business district, Wharf Hill was a bustling center of activity. The building owned by the town’s black Elks Lodge, which housed three storefronts and had a large meeting area upstairs, dates to 1906.
“During segregation, the Elks Club and Wharf Hill were the place to go,” said Lee Duncan, the president of the Isle of Wight Historic Society. “It had everything you wanted. It had a barbershop for the men to chat. It had a beauty parlor for the women to chat. It had a pool hall for the guys to have a drink and shoot some pool. Had a great party space upstairs and a funeral parlor next door, so it was cradle to the grave.”
Duncan says Wharf Hill is the forgotten end of the street — businesses fled in the 1980s and it’s been semi-abandoned for 25 years, he said.
“If you don’t like old buildings and you aren’t curious, you won’t even cross the stoplight,” he said.
In 2010, a for-sale sign appeared in front of the Elks’ building. Duncan bought it, hoping to find someone who would open a brewery and restaurant in the building once he had restored it. Efforts to lure brewers like O’Connor’s Brewing Company in Norfolk went nowhere.
“The common refrain was, ‘There’s no parking. Nobody’s been down here for years,’ so there wasn’t enough momentum at this end of Main Street for anyone to take that risk on it,” Duncan said.
But Duncan began renovating the space, peeling back the layers that had been laid over the original building over the last century.
Once completed, everything that is visible in the brewpub will be repurposed from the building or another old structure. The footboard at the bar, for instance, is a beam from a hog barn that was built in the 1960s and had been rubbed against and chewed on by swine for half a century. Every plank in the floor and panel in the ceiling will have a similar history.
But as the building took shape, Duncan still had no one lined up to move in.
“So finally, I said, ‘We already did this much work – repaired the masonry, repaired the floor.’ Nobody else was stepping up, so if I wanted to get it done I had to bite the bullet and do it myself,” he said.
And so Duncan became a restaurateur and brewer.
Greg Bullis, a former Marine, will serve as brew master and has been experimenting with different craft beers for the brewery. Robert Cox, a local restaurateur who’s managed restaurants at Smithfield Station and the Chamberlin Hotel in Hampton, has signed on to run the restaurant for the first year. Duncan will be his understudy for 12 months and then he’s on his own.
A New Year’s opening seems the likely target for the brewpub.
The rest of Wharf Hill is ripe for development, Duncan says. At the base of the hill, a shoe repair shop stands empty and some vacant lots face the river.
“Hopefully a restaurant will go in there, because we want people to have options and reasons to come down the hill and reach that critical mass,” Duncan said. “It’s time to breathe some life back into this hill and bring people back down to this end of Main Street.”
Smithfield’s Historic District draws tourists looking for small-town charm, but tourism director Judy Winslow said the town is also looking to capture the attention of a younger crowd — a tough sell for a town built on ham and home to as many antique shops as eateries.
Lee Duncan is more frank about the state of Smithfield’s downtown.
“The Historic District of Smithfield is a fantastic area,” he said. “However, there’s nothing to do at night and your average visitor is an AARP member, which is great, it’s fantastic — but there’s been generations of people born since the ’60s who are looking for something to do.”
A winery with a tasting room and a brewpub may help bridge the gap.
“I think it’s going to go a long way towards giving us a hip vibe. That’s what I’m counting on,” Winslow said. “Brewpubs are popular. We’ve hit the big time now that we’ve got one of our own. Next stop, Coolsville.”