CLEARWATER — Driving around after lunch on a recent Saturday, Tom and Alex Shackton pulled over near where N Fort Harrison Avenue doglegs into Fairmont Street. The couple's curiosity had been building for months.
"Are you all serving yet?" Tom Shackton yelled out to the owners he spotted working inside the building, a new Clearwater Brewing Company sign hoisted out front.
As the dilapidated former gas station transformed into a state of the art brewery over the past two years, it's a question the four friends turned business partners fielded almost daily from curious drivers passing by, neighbors walking their dogs and residents who had gotten used to the lot as another eyesore on the slumped retail strip ripe with potential.
With its grand opening slated for Saturday, the business owners have high hopes for the role Clearwater Brewing Co. could play in the revitalization of Old Clearwater Bay neighborhood and North Marina Area — a historic section of homes and an under-used retail corridor north of downtown.
When the friends started scouting a location in early 2017, they considered downtown proper, where the city has unsuccessfully tried to recruit brew pubs for years. But the group saw a special potential in the charming 133-year-old neighborhood on the outskirts.
"I hope we're going to be the catalyst that turns this into a little hub right here," said Keith Ford, co-owner with F. Bowling, Rob Neff and Howard Shirley. "Prior to us putting this in, there is no place to sit and hang out. Now you've got a reason to stay. With just a couple more complementary businesses, I think this will be a hub."
The brewery started as just a dream by Neff, who in early 2017 pitched the idea to Lita Bowling, his coworker at U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base.
Neff had brewed beer at home over the years and got inspired to go professional after a tour of 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg.
Lita Bowling said she was intrigued by the business opportunity. She and her husband, F. Bowling, had insight into the industry through F.'s brother, a master brewer in Ohio.
When Neff called his childhood friend, Howard Shirley, who had been working for the past eight years in Korea as an aerospace welder, Shirley said the venture was enough to bring him back from across the world to his hometown of Tampa.
And as the group started knocking down walls of the 60-year-old former gas station at 1700 N Fort Harrison Ave. and needed contracting expertise, they brought Keith Ford in to the venture, an engineer who has been brewing beer in his Clearwater back yard for decades.
The group bought the building in June 2017 for $180,000, according to property records, but declined to disclose their total investment. The sweat equity, Shirley said, is immeasurable.
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The 1958-era building served as a gas station until the 1970s, and although it looked abandoned, was used by carpet and stucco businesses in recent years, according to Kelly Ford, wife of Keith Ford, who helped with research.
The four owners and Lita Bowling, with some help from Neff's wife, Angela, spent weekends over two years laying concrete, redesigning the parking lot, repairing the roof. They built by hand the outdoor planters, tap handles, the concrete bar.
"We did 90 percent of the rehab ourselves with some help from family and friends, long journey," Shirley said.
When it came time to name the beers they'll be brewing on site, the group wanted to honor the local character. A week before opening, they were considering ale and IPA names that will give nods to nearby Myrtle Avenue, the Clearwater Bombers softball legacy, Clearwater Marine Aquarium dolphins Winter and Hope, Fort Harrison Avenue and other Clearwater icons.
Brewmaster Aaron Barth, who has made beer for Florida Avenue Brewing and Carnival Cruise Line, said he intends for Clearwater Brewing to become known for taste.
"The first thing we want to focus on is quality," Barth said. "The big thing for me is making sure I'm brewing for the season. Not everybody wants a heavy, heavy beer in the middle of Florida summer."
While the long-term goal is to serve food in-house, the brewery will launch with a partnership with Arthur's Homestyle BBQ across the street. The restaurant, a small walk-up window at 1701 N Fort Harrison Ave., has earned a loyal following in its five years of business but does not have the real estate for sit-down dining.
Owner Sarge Brown said he plans to have runners take orders and deliver food to customers at the brewery, which has ample outdoor and indoor seating.
"This allows both of us, this area, to grow," said Brown, whose short ribs, brisket, pulled pork and other specialties are all cooked fresh over wood burning fire.
Over the years, the city of Clearwater has struggled to land a single craft brewery downtown, despite a brew pub incentive program launched in 2017 and overhauled in 2018.
But the city has also invested millions just outside of downtown as part of a 2016 master plan to lift the North Marina Area that host blocks of under-used retail space, dilapidated buildings and vacant lots along the waterfront.
In March the city broke ground on a $6.5 million renovation of its Seminole Boat Ramp, about six blocks south of Clearwater Brewing Co. The city is also on schedule to close in June on a $1.8 million purchase of historic North Ward Elementary School in the district. The city plans to invite developers to pitch ideas on how to repurpose the building later this year.
Interim Assistant City Manager Michael Delk said the private investment by the brewery, and its synergy working with the neighboring barbecue restaurant, is a critical element alongside the city's revitalization efforts.
"It would be hard for me to overstate the value I see in that kind of private sector investment and energy on a property like that, in a corridor like that," Delk said. "That's about as good as you get, when you have strong entrepreneurs complementing each other, that's where you start to create change."
The Shacktons, who were driving around with their son, Liam, 8, when they stopped to check on the brewery, said there is a restlessness felt by Clearwater natives.
"You go to Dunedin, St. Pete, it's a different vibe," Alex Shackton said. "Clearwater has been dead for so long, we want something like this here for everybody to go, to be outside, have a drink. We've been lacking that."
Lita Bowling said they are aware of that hunger in the community, which is why the character of the area is a central element of their business identity, she said.
"When you have the city's name in your business, to me that represents how we want to look at it. This is Clearwater's beer," she said.
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.