When Todd Haymore found out that the president of Deschutes Brewery was a fan of the Grateful Dead, the Virginia secretary of agriculture and forestry was thrilled for the chance to put 30 years of fandom to work for his state.
For nearly four years, the commonwealth of Virginia had pursued Deschutes, the Bend, Oregon, brewery that sought the perfect site for an East Coast production facility. The decision came down to a handful of Mid-Atlantic cities, including Roanoke, Virginia, and Asheville, North Carolina—the former “Beer City U.S.A.” winner that had landed Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and New Belgium Brewing in recent years.
As a member of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s cabinet, Haymore played a support role in that quest. When McAuliffe told him to lock down a keg of Deschutes’ beer for a key meeting or not bother showing up for work the next day, Haymore scoured the state before his staff located a keg of Deschutes’ Fresh Squeezed IPA in Sterling. Then, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership project manager on the brewery found out that Deschutes President and COO Michael LaLonde dug the Dead.
Haymore was prepared. Months earlier, he’d shelled out $700 for the 80-disc, “30 Trips Around The Sun” boxed set that included 30 live Grateful Dead shows, one for each year of its live performances. That night in mid-December 2015, he brought it to the governor’s mansion.
That meeting over supper marked the culmination of months of work, both for Deschutes and for Virginia officials.
Since it was founded in 1988, Deschutes had expanded its reach annually, finally reaching the point that the cost of shipping its beer to newer markets—Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin—forced it to consider building an East Coast facility. It’s not the only brewery to chart this course. In recent years, Oskar Blues Brewery, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Stone Brewing and Green Flash Brewing Co. all built facilities in North Carolina or Virginia.
Deschutes hired the Austin Group, a consulting firm, to guide it through that decision-making process. It began with thousands of potential sites, says LaLonde, and then began narrowing the list based on its priorities.
“Those had a lot to do with what we enjoy in Bend,” LaLonde says. “A lot of outdoor activities, things for our co-owners to do: mountain biking, being on the river, fishing. We wanted city with a decent cost of living, but also smaller, similar to Bend. We narrowed down locations to something like 50 actual sites.”
Deschutes officials closely studied each prospective site on the internet. Then, they began visiting those places, talking to economic development officials by day and going out to restaurants and bars at night. They looked for the right water, a good workforce, convenient access to markets and a culture that fit Deschutes’ company image. They explored Asheville and Charlotte in North Carolina, Chattanooga and Knoxville in Tennessee, Charleston, South Carolina, and Charlottesville and Roanoke in Virginia.
Roanoke had had close scrapes with breweries before, appearing on the short list for both Sierra Nevada and Stone. The near miss with Sierra Nevada had galvanized the Roanoke Regional Partnership, who in January 2012 began tailoring pitches to showcase water quality and wastewater capacity for breweries. The partnership’s first contact with Deschutes came just months later, in a conference call with LaLonde and CFO Peter Skrbek in May 2012.
As the process continued, Roanoke officials sought to make an impression on Deschutes’ consultant, the Austin Group. It courted Brandon Talbert, a director with the firm, giving him a tour of Roanoke and its beer culture. At Martin’s Downtown Bar & Grill, a downtown music hotspot, a group of young women wearing LED-lit hula hoops danced in front of the stage.
“The consultant thought this was the greatest thing,” says Roanoke Regional Partnership Executive Director Beth Doughty. “He’d never seen it before. When the company came in November 2015 with five or six people, the consultant was saying, ‘You’ve got to see these hula hoops.’ As the bus pulled up in front of Martin’s to let them out, they could see through the window that the hula hoops were there, and the whole bus erupted in cheers.”
Partnership officials rode big wheels on the 11-mile Roanoke River Greenway and took them along on a regularly scheduled, 3-mile pub run to the Wasena City Tap Room. One of the partnership’s seven-member staff is devoted solely to marketing the region’s outdoor amenities, and the team put extra effort into showcasing recreational opportunities to brewery officials, who cited that as an important factor in their decision.
Nate Brocious, Deschutes’ tours and tasting room supervisor, and Erin Rankin, communications and community involvement, were two of the brewery’s three culture club members to visit Roanoke. Rankin recalls the chance not just to visit the city, but to talk about the decision with top company executives: “I remember walking home from River and Rail [a Roanoke farm-to-table restaurant] with Gary [Fish, the brewery’s founder] one night catching fireflies and having that discussion. It was really neat to hear from him to talk about what it would be like for Deschutes co-owners to live here.”
Brocious remembers wandering neighborhood streets between two restaurants, visiting Roanoke’s pinball museum and approaching people in the street to ask for directions and recommendations. Both remember the hula hoop bar.
By 2015, news of Deschutes’ search went public with Asheville, Charlottesville and Roanoke listed as potential sites. In October, Michael Galliher built a Facebook page called “Deschutes 2 Roanoke” that sought to build enthusiasm and show community support through the use of a “Deschutes2Rke” hashtag. It caught hold in Roanoke, with individuals and businesses taking photos in the region’s beautiful places while holding “Deschutes2Rke” signs, and it caught the attention of brewery employees doing internet research from Bend.
The social media campaign did more than just get Deschutes’ attention; it also served as a turning point for Roanoke’s self-image. The eastern Appalachian city rose and fell in the 19th and 20th centuries on the fortunes of the railroad, and its decline through the ’80s and ’90s gave rise to defeatism.
The railroad closed its administrative offices in 2015, but by then the economic development partnership had gone to work writing a new community narrative, based not on industry but on recreational opportunities in the mountains and a thriving new community emerging downtown in hip, renovated apartment buildings formerly home to vacant warehouses and office buildings.
Even had it not succeeded, Deschutes2Rke marked the tipping point toward this positive new self-image. However, it did succeed: Deschutes2Rke didn’t just convince Roanokers, it helped convince Deschutes. In November 2015, the company’s employees voted for Roanoke as their preferred site.
Virginia officials didn’t know about this vote, however, and so they approached the Dec. 16, 2015, supper at the governor’s mansion with the goal of closing the deal. Haymore asked Gov. McAuliffe if it would be a problem to play the Grateful Dead during the event. McAuliffe responded, “Problem? We’ll get the Dead back together if it’ll help us close this deal.”
When LaLonde arrived, McAuliffe and Haymore steered him toward the massive box set and asked him to pick a show. On Haymore’s recommendation, LaLonde selected 9/10/91, a show from New York City’s Madison Square Garden that featured pianist Bruce Hornsby and saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
Haymore can cite the setlist and his favorite moments during the show—the “Shakedown Street” opener, an elongated “Help On the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower” section and a bisected “Dark Star.” He remembers tuning in at various points, checking in with the Dead show as the night progressed. The deal got cut, and McAuliffe and LaLonde shook on it during “Franklin’s Tower.”
“There’s the line, ‘if you get confused, listen to the music play,’” Haymore says. “I remember thinking, how appropriate. There’s no more confusion.”
The resulting deal will bring to Roanoke a projected 108 jobs and $85 million in investment.
LaLonde doesn’t recall all the show details from the evening, although he’s since obtained a copy of it on CD. What he does remember is an extraordinary evening heightened by the music of a favorite band playing in the mansion of a position once held by Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.
“I just thought the whole environment was pretty amazing, sitting in the governor of Virginia’s mansion with all his staff and our team,” LaLonde says. “It just was an amazing feeling to be there having dinner and listening to the Grateful Dead. I don’t know how many times I was sitting there, and realized it was playing in the background, and chuckled to myself.”
Did the hula hoop dancers at Martin’s or the Grateful Dead playing in the governor’s mansion land Deschutes in Roanoke? Of course not.
Deschutes needed certain fundamentals—market access, good water, a favorable business environment. A package of incentives—$3.25 million in grants, along with other potential funding from state programs—helped, too.
Yet those memorable moments—exploring western Virginia’s trails and rivers, visiting nightspots and, yes, hearing the Grateful Dead during a business dinner—forged the emotional bond that closed the deal.
Mason Adams (@MasonAtoms on Twitter) covers business, politics and more from the mountains of southwest Virginia.