Angier, NC, which has about a sixth of Sanford’s population, was home to its own craft brewery from 2012 t0 2016. So why not Sanford?

Downtown Sanford has come a long way in a few short years. There’s new vitality that’s economic, artistic and social. Much of that can be attributed to the downtown streetscape project, the completion of which the city is set to celebrate in a few weeks.

Yep. Sanford seems poised to join the ranks of other small cities across North Carolina which have revitalized to great success and emerged being able to offer the kinds of amenities previously only seen in larger urban centers.

So when the heck are we gonna get a dang brewery?

In the nearly 12 months since the Sanford City Council adopted zoning and regulatory guidelines meant to pave the way for a craft brewery to locate here, rumors have swirled, but little else.

Sanford is in the upper left quadrant. There are breweries in virtually every direction. Source: NC Craft Brewers Guild.

Craft beer is everywhere (well, almost everywhere, otherwise we wouldn’t be writing this story) in North Carolina: According to the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, there are 185 craft breweries in the state. They employ 10,000 people and have an economic impact of $1.2 billion annually.

As something of a doughnut hole with regards to craft beer — drive to the next town over in just about any direction, and you’ll find a brewery — Sanford seems poised to benefit from this growing industry.

With the amendments that have been made, I think the environment is very supportive of this type of thing,” Marshall Downey, Sanford’s planning director, told the Rant.

Downey confirmed that one person had applied for and received a permit to operate a brewey, but had not yet applied for an occupancy permit to actually begin operations.

That brewer is Tim Emmert of Hugger Mugger Brewing, who told the Sanford Herald in April of 2016 (subscription required) that he hoped to announce a downtown brewery sometime in the months subsequent to that article. Emmert, of Carthage, has appeared before the Sanford City Council and the local historic preservation commission a number of times to discuss his plans.

He told The Rant this week that his team has spent the last year or so working through logistical issues with what he calls the “very capital-intensive” process of opening a brewery, but noted that meeting a start date of May 1 for renovations to the undisclosed property is a priority.

“It may take three months to get the renovations done, and we’re budgeting an additional three months after that to deal with the various things that come up,” Emmert said. “If the doors are open by Nov. 1, we’re happy.”

For Emmert and Hugger Mugger, locating in downtown is especially important, given the recent streetscape renovations.

“I was in Sanford 10 years ago with someone who was going on and on about the potential downtown, and honestly, at the time I didn’t really see it. But, you know, over time you start to see,” he said. “It’s such a walkable area with so many cool old buildings. There are so many assets to build off of in terms of existing businesses, but there’s also so much room to expand.”

Quoted in the same Herald article is Sanford native Mike Stec, who said at the time he was looking to get Camelback Brewing Company off the ground. Stec told the Rant that in the almost-year since that article, he’d made adjustments to his plan but is still looking to open in Sanford. He didn’t give a specific date for opening, but said plans are moving forward.

“Camelback has taken a big step forward with our organizational process and business model,” Stec said. “Based on our market research, we’re striving to appeal to a broader audience while still celebrating our local roots.”

Others with a familiarity of both Sanford and the craft brewing industry say Sanford has loads of potential with regards to the craft brewing scene.

“A town the size of Sanford is ripe for the opportunity,” said Michael Stagner, who spent a good part of his youth here and now lives in Raleigh, where he owns Sub Noir Brewing. “There are places like Deep River in Clayton and Mystery in Hillsborough. Those towns support those breweries. Those are the breweries for those towns. So I could see something like that working in Sanford.”

Stagner opened Sub Noir in 2013 as a part-time venture, and it has remained that way – open on weekends only – and will for the time being. That said, he’s grown his operation by expanding the taproom into the next building and expects to continue growing.

But Raleigh is obviously a different, larger market than Sanford. That’s why Stagner says whoever is the first to launch a brewery in Sanford will be at a distinct advantage.

“In Sanford, you’re going to want to be the first one to do it, because if you’re second, you have to be able to offer something above or more unique than whoever came first,” he said.

Matt Corregan of Raleigh’s Nickelpoint Brewing agrees. Corregan, who lives in Sanford, said he’s seen enormous growth in craft beer locally, but doesn’t know how to quantify it.

“There are a few places in Sanford that I know of who are supposed to be doing pretty well with craft beer,” he said, identifying Local Joe’s, the Smoke & Barreland the recently-opened Libations as examples. “I think there’s interest, but it’s kind of hard to gauge the level. Is Sanford saturated now? Or is there room for a brewery that offers its own craft beer?”

Nickelpoint operates a taproom on a full-time basis and also distributes its beers to markets across North Carolina, including at chain grocery stores. Corregan said the fact that big retailers like Food Lion and Lowes are offering craft selections is an indicator that there is in fact a market for craft beer in Sanford.

“I’ve given thought in the past to expanding into Sanford. It’s not something I’ve seriously pursued, but the idea of having a taproom here has crossed my mind,” he said. “The popularity has increased, and there are definitely people in Sanford who are interested in craft beer.”

The industry tends to be a friendly one in which most brewers admire, enjoy and even enable to work of their peers – “I can go to any brewer in Raleigh and ask for a specific kind of cleaning product or a certain kind of years, and they’ll share,” Stagner said – but it’s also become more competitive as a result of its explosion in popularity.

“With so much to choose from, people really want to see what’s coming next,” Corregan said. “And so there’s a lot of changeover and rotating taps.”

Downey, the city planning director, also noted that while most speculation has swirled around downtown, because the zoning and regulatory changes were made to the county’s Unified Development Ordinance – which applies to Sanford, Lee County and Broadway – a brewery could conceivably locate anywhere in Lee County. He added that the primary challenge from a legal perspective would be navigating the balance between the industrial and retail aspects of a brewery.

“Some parts of (a brewery) are treated like an industrial operation, but there is sometimes a desire for the public to be able to see the process and so it’s up to the brewer to figure out how to address that. That’s not unique to Sanford, but each jurisdiction has had to determine how best to deal with that,” he said, noting that when the zoning regulations were drafted, best practices from other areas were incorporated. “We didn’t try to reinvent the wheel.”

There’s opportunity, there’s interest, there’s potential. Craft brewing in Sanford, North Carolina. Coming soon.