Plans for a brewery, distillery and restaurant in the former Lenoir City Utilities Board building downtown are no more after investors backed out of the project.
“It has become clear to Bussell that, with the current economic environment caused by COVID-19 and the resulting impact on tourism, hospitality and the spirits industries, the proposed project at the property has become impossible,” Kris Tatum, Bussell Island Partners general partner, wrote in a Nov. 1 letter to Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens. “We had hoped that this emergency would clear quickly, but it is clear that the situation will last well into 2021 and perhaps beyond. Therefore, under Section 5.13 of the agreement, we are providing notice of a ‘Force Majeure’ event that makes performance under the agreement impossible.”
Lenoir City officials and business investors formally shared plans for Bussell Island Distilling and Brewing Company in July 2018. A ground-breaking ceremony followed in March 2019. The building has since remained vacant and no work took place inside.
Tatum in December said he hoped to have some part of the business open in the fourth quarter of 2020.
The decision comes after Aikens asked investors in October to decide what their plans were for the building. Aikens said the property has now reverted to the Lenoir City Industrial Development Board.
“It’s something unforeseeable,” he said. “Who knew that we were going to have a pandemic and shut the whole country down and create this type of situation? Who could have predicted that? I certainly couldn’t have, and if I could have I certainly wouldn’t be sitting in this seat. It’s one of those unfortunate situations. Certainly I’m disappointed, I know of a lot of other folks are disappointed, but I do appreciate the Bussell Island folks being honest with me. They spent some time and money and effort down there trying to see what they were going to have to do. When I spoke with him, he apologized several times, but I don’t blame him. It’s the economy, times that we’re in, but we’ll get past it and we’ll move forward. I am committed to bringing something downtown to that building.”
He said two suitors — another brewery and a local business — are interested in the building. Aikens would not divulge the names.
During a Nov. 9 Lenoir City Council meeting, Aikens said he hoped to have an answer from the new brewery company within 30-60 days.
“I said 30 to 60 days. I think I’ll have an answer within 90 days,” he said. “There is just a lot of due diligence. They’ve got to get in there and see exactly what they would have to do. A lot of money would be spent there if this company came. ... I think the other type of business, from all indications, I talked to the folks just a few days ago, I think they would take it now — and they’re a reputable company, very reputable company — but I think that we need to see if we can get the brewery first.”
Giving a brewery and restaurant priority offers a chance for more people to come downtown, he said.
“I think it’ll bring more people downtown, and that’s what the downtown area needs,” Aikens said. “We have to try to think of ways to drive people to the downtown area, and I think this certainly would be beneficial. There’s a lot of brewing companies out there that does all kinds of brewing, so keep that in mind.”
Mary Bright, local business owner and Historic Downtown Lenoir City Merchants Association president, was disappointed but remains optimistic for the future.
“I think everyone downtown was looking forward to having the brewery come downtown, but ... in the future it may be something that comes that’s even better,” Bright said. “I don’t think it’s a closed door on a restaurant or a brewery, distillery, whichever occupying that space.
“... I think it’s a great space and I think there are probably several opportunities to make it something that’s going to be something that downtown will really enjoy having and be rewarding to see it come downtown,” she added.