Brewery, Distillery Bring Life Back to New Castle
NEW CASTLE, Pa. – With a new brewpub and distillery now open, nightlife is returning to downtown New Castle.
Neshannock Creek Brewing and Union Station Craft Distillery both had grand opening celebrations on Sept. 23. The owners of both establishments say they’re happy to bring people back to the city and hope more businesses join them.
A third project that could soon get underway would transform the former Huntington Bank building at 101 E. Washington St. into apartments and commercial space, including a restaurant.
“It will be the icing on the cake for us,” says Angie Urban, executive director of New Castle Citywide Development Corp., a nonprofit economic redevelopment agency.
The prominent six-story building in the heart of downtown has a decorative stone façade and a “classic” marble lobby space, Urban says.
The building was purchased last year by LE Revocable Trust of Cambridge, Mass. Thao Tran, who represented the trust in meetings with city council, could not be reached for comment.
The CDC is trying to drive further development on the Huntington Bank block by creating a public space along the east side of the building that would be used for festivals. The space would connect East Washington Street to the city parking garage behind the bank building.
“It would be a pedestrian gateway and festival space with a public art fixture,” Urban says. Her agency has acquired all four lots that comprise the project and will use ARPA funding from the city and county to install benches, landscaping and a place for food trucks to park.
“There will be a lot of movement on that in the next few months,” Urban says, adding a grand opening will take place in the spring.
Eric Fulkerson quietly opened his Neshannock Creek Brewing, 20 N. Mercer St., in late July on the ground floor of The Henry Hotel building, a restored four-story brick structure built in 1897 at 20 S. Mercer St.
The brewpub occupies a space on the ground floor that had been occupied by former state Rep. Chris Sainato.
Fulkerson transformed the ground floor into a tap room with an exposed brick wall, and a bar and table seating for 30.
A patio is snuggled into a courtyard at the rear of the building with seating for 30 more.
The brewing equipment is in the basement.
The Henry Banquet & Event Center also occupies the first floor and is used for spillover seating when the taproom gets too busy.
Food at the brewpub is provided by The Henry’s kitchen, which offers a menu of burgers, wings, quesadillas, home-cut fries and pulled pork sandwiches.
“The locals are loving it,” Fulkerson says of his establishment. “There hasn’t been anything like this in downtown New Castle for a long time. I’m getting a lot of repeat customers and they’re bringing their friends.”
At present, the taproom is only open on Fridays and Saturdays from 4-10 p.m. Plans call for adding live entertainment.
Fulkerson has sunk about $50,000 into the brewpub, half of which was spent on the brewing equipment. It’s a small, one-barrel (31 gallon) system – which means Fulkerson must stay busy to keep up with demand.
“I have to do a lot of brewing,” he says.
Fulkerson had never operated a bar before. But he’s long been a home brewer and says brewing runs in his family.
His father was also a home brewer and his grandfather worked at a defunct brewery in New Castle.
Neshannock Creek Brewing has 12 beers on tap – 11 of its own and one guest tap.
Fulkerson says the Crick Water Cream Ale is his best seller.
“It’s a basic beer,” he says. “A lot of people don’t drink craft beer, and that’s what I recommend for them. It’s a groundbreaker for them.”
A New Castle native who spent a chunk of his life in California before returning home, Fulkerson says he’s trying to help downtown make a comeback.
“When I talk to people who come in, they say they’ve been waiting for something like this,” he says. “They enjoy the vibe. It’s been very friendly. Hopefully more businesses will come downtown.”
By day, Fulkerson works for a Pittsburgh-based real estate management company, servicing heating and air conditioning systems.
The Union Station Craft Distillery, 334 E. Washington St., occupies the former Pennsylvania Railroad Union Station, just over the Washington Street bridge from downtown.
The 1910 building has been lovingly restored by its owners, DON Services, and retains its railroad-era charm.
The owners of the distillery, David Goldberg and Rod Firmi, rent the building and the two cabooses that are parked on track remnants behind it.
The cabooses form a natural privacy fence for the distillery’s patio and will eventually be used for office space and a tasting room.
Goldberg, a retired philosophy professor at Westminster College, is a whiskey afficionado who makes sake – the Japanese liquor – at home. Firmi is owner and president of Olde Recipe Foods, a New Castle-based kielbasa and sausage company.
The distillery is the first foray into the alcohol business for both men.
It all started three years ago after Firmi moved into a house next to Goldberg. The two would get together in the evening for whiskey and pizza, and the idea of launching a distillery began to take shape.
After a lengthy search for a location, Goldberg and Firmi signed a lease for their current location and bought a 400-gallon still.
Goldberg handles the whiskey production. He learned the craft by taking classes at Moonshine University in Louisville, Ky., and from an online educator.
The still is set up in the former train station’s passenger waiting area, a high-ceilinged room that easily accommodates the structure.
The bar room, which is down a short hallway from the distilling area, offers more than a dozen craft cocktails.
Union Station is open for on-premises consumption from 4-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. But it is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday for customers who want to purchase a bottle to go.
The distillery currently offers vodka and its Gandy Dancer gin, with its initial batch of rye currently aging. Up next will be bourbon and rum.
The bar also sells cans of Pennsylvania-made craft beer. There is no kitchen, but food trucks will be parked on the site.
Nor are there televisions or loud music at Union Station. “We want the bar to be a place for talking,” Goldberg says. “Like an English pub.”
One of the special events he’s planning is a philosophy discussion night.
The owners embrace their role in restoring downtown New Castle.
“We love to be part of the renaissance,” Firmi says. “That’s why we are here. Originally, we were not going to be downtown. But then we saw this building and started talking to the city and DON Services and learned about their [redevelopment] plans. We are an anchor for their plans.”
Goldberg wants to see New Castle become more like Franklin, Pa., which he and his girlfriend occasionally visit on motorcycle rides.
“They have this nice little downtown that attracts people and it’s a shame that New Castle doesn’t,” he says. “It’s a much bigger city but it doesn’t have an evening life.”
DON (Disability Options Network) is a home care agency that branched into residential and commercial development in recent years, according to its attorney, Robert DiBuono.
Its projects include the handful of buildings near the Washington Street Bridge where the distillery sits. The adjacent six-story Wright Building, a former hotel, is being gutted and restored into residential and commercial space.
DON also owns the Premier Paints building, which is next to the distillery, and the three buildings across the street. One houses the Corner Stone barbecue restaurant, which opened last year. DON intends to use a grant it received to beautify the area, which DiBuono describes as a gateway to downtown.
Some existing downtown businesses are also sprucing up their appearance thanks to a façade improvement grant program administered by Citywide Development Corp.
“Eight properties are taking advantage of it and enhancing their storefronts,” the CDC’s Urban says.
Pictured at top: Eric Fulkerson sits in the taproom of his Neshannock Creek Brewing Co. in downtown New Castle, Pa.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.