RONAN — Montana’s first cooperative brewery is expected to open its doors sometime next year in Ronan.
The hope is the venture will create a new cornerstone business that will lead to a revitalization of the community’s struggling downtown area.
“Ronan’s downtown used to be the hub of the valley,” said Rosie Goldich of the Lake County Community Development Corporation. “It used to be this great location. Main Street was thriving back then.”
Like many small towns, Ronan’s Main Street is now dotted with empty storefronts.
In the spring of 2016, local leaders asked a team of professional economic developers from the Montana Economic Development Association to host a series of listening sessions around the community and then offer suggestions on what could be done to revitalize Main Street.
“They were basically asked three questions,” said Brianna Ewert of the Lake County Community Development Corporation. “What are the strengths of Ronan? What are the challenges facing the community? And where would you like to see Ronan in five, 10, 20 years?”
“The top concern that rose out of this was Main Street revitalization,” Ewert said. “That was the main priority followed by business development in Ronan … A lot of people were also really interested in seeing more niche marketing, more value added agriculture and more things that would support Ronan’s agricultural heritage.”
Ronan residents were also very interested in the idea of a brewery.
The idea of creating a new cornerstone business on the town’s Main Street topped the list in the resource team’s subsequent report.
“They said if you want Main Street revitalization, you need an anchor business,” Ewert said. “You need something that will bring people to Main Street. It could be something like Philipsburg’s candy store, a bike shop or a bakery. They said a brewery would be a great idea, too.”
While there are 68 breweries in the state, there isn’t one in the Mission Valley.
The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research estimates that nearly 250,000 people from outside the state spend at least one night in Lake County. On average, 12,884 vehicles travel through Ronan every day, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.
“It’s literally an untapped market,” Goldich said.
Last spring, the Lake County Community Development Corporation hosted a meeting to see if people were interested in the idea of creating a cooperative brewery in town.
Barb Nelson and her husband were among the 60 who showed up to learn more.
The couple lived in Charlo in the 1970s. Back then, Ronan’s Main Street was thriving.
“You used to be able to go there and get just about everything you needed,” Nelson said. “It was kind of sad to see how poorly it was doing now.”
They also had seen what a brewery can mean for a small town after watching the success of 2 Basset Brewery in White Sulfur Springs. The brewery in that community of 908 people became the meeting place for locals and drew others in with a variety of different events.
“It seemed like a good way to begin to revitalize Ronan’s Main Street,” Nelson said. “People could buy shares in the cooperative brewery and help their community at the same time.”
Nelson serves on the cooperative’s steering committee.
So far, 116 people have paid $250 to become a part owner in the venture. Some of those have also opted to buy additional $100 shares of preferred stock.
When it comes to creating a new business, Ewert said it was kind of a funny place to begin.
“It wasn’t an entrepreneur coming in and saying I want to start a brewery,” she said. “It was a group of people in town saying we want a brewery to help our community.”
The Lake County Community Development Corporation had experience at creating agricultural cooperatives. They drew on that to move forward with the cooperative brewery idea.
“We were starting to hear about these cooperative breweries in other parts of the country and just thought it seemed like a really interesting idea,” Ewert said. “They all had sort of similar stories to what was happening here. There were a group of people that got together and said we really want a brewery and so they formed as a cooperative business.”
The nearest one to Ronan is the Flying Bike Brewery in Seattle. Ewert said she couldn’t find another in Montana or surrounding states.
At that first meeting, Ewert shared what she had learned about brewery cooperatives. Craig Koontz, the former head brewer at Lakeside’s Tamarack Brewery, shared his knowledge of the industry.
“By the time that meeting was over, people were excited. They were really wound up,” Ewert said. “At the end of the meeting it was like ‘what do we do next.’ ”
Last fall, the necessary paperwork was filed with the state that allowed the sale of common and preferred stock.
A town meeting in early December drew about 80 people interested in buying stock and learning more about the project.
“The energy in that room was incredible,” Goldich said. “People were there to sign up. They wanted to be an owner. After they signed their forms, we told them ‘you own a brewery.’ People were excited to be able to reinvest in their community.”
So far, people from Missoula to Polson have brought shares in the venture. As the word spreads, Ray believes that people from even farther away will be interested.
“It is fun that it started organically and the first memberships were local, but the idea of being part of saving a town and being a part of the first cooperative brewery in Montana is pretty fantastic,” Ray said. “There are some people who don’t even drink beer who tell us they love this idea.”
The hope is the new brewery can be up and operating sometime next summer, after a brewer is hired.
Ray said there already has been a change in the way many feel about the future of Ronan.
When folks first offered their thoughts during that initial assessment, many said the community’s downtown was dying and there wasn’t any way to turn that around.
The team of professional economic developers offered a different point of view. They told the community that things weren’t all that bad. The town’s Main Street still had a bowling alley and movie theater. The street led to the beautiful hospital and there was a really nice park there, too.
“They told the community that it’s not that bad,” said Ray. “It really did flip the hope. We’ve seen that in the excitement that’s building around the cooperative brewery. It’s really about transformation of this community. It’s really about Main Street revitalization.”
People interested in learning more or buying shares in Ronan’s cooperative brewery can contact Lake County Community Development Corporation at 406-676-5901 or stop by their office at 407 Main St. in Ronan.