Jacques Kelly: Project aims to return Baltimore-accented manufacturing to the Jones Falls Valley

Consumers once bought lawn mower blades and refrigerator ice makers in a cavernous warehouse and distribution center now undergoing a thorough transformation. The long brick structure is scheduled to emerge next spring as a center of local industry in the Jones Falls Valley. Look for Baltimore-pedigree beer, hot sauce, ice cream, whiskey — and a climbing gym — at the newly christened Union Collective.

After spending $6.8 million for the former Sears warehouse and parking lot just north of the 41st Street Bridge, Adam Benesch and his team of investors envision a rebirth of manufacturing in what was historically one of Baltimore’s busiest 19th-century industrial neighborhoods. He and his partners, John Zerivitz and Kevin Blodger, wanted room to grow and brew their Union Craft lines of beers — and when this real estate sales opportunity arrived, Benesch wrote the check, with the backing of Seawall Development.

He immediately reached out to other local Baltimore makers who saw a need for expanding their businesses.

“When we saw this empty cavern, the opportunity became obvious,” said Benesch, who grew up in Owings Mills and is a Franklin High School and University of Maryland graduate. He said he did not see the potential of the structure, which is long and flat like an aircraft carrier, until the last industrial tenant, industrial plastics maker Hedwin, moved to Delaware. Sears left in the 1980s.

While a student in College Park, Benesch encountered the country’s first new wave of craft beers. He liked what he tasted 20 years ago and established Union Craft Brewing in 2011.

The Union in his beers’ name refers to Union Avenue, where he now has a brewery. The Union also refers to the three founders’ enthusiasm for beer — the union of malt, hops, water and yeast.

“The whole valley has a rich manufacturing history,” he said. “The jobs went away a long time time ago. We are going to replace them here at the Collective.”

He has recruited fellow Baltimore makers The Charmery ice cream shop in Hampden, the Baltimore Whiskey Co. and Huckle’s gourmet hot sauce. A coffee roaster is also exploring the idea of locating here. A new Earth Treks gym featuring a climbing wall will occupy one of the larger spaces — more than 20,000 square feet.

Standing in the bottom of the valley, Benesch points across the Jones Falls to the surviving industrial landscape — the old Schenuit Rubber complex and the Poole and Hunt Foundry. Just to the south, textile laborers once worked the looms at the Mount Vernon Mills while other workers filled cobalt-blue glass jars with Noxzema skin cream.

“We love Baltimore history,” Benesch said. “We’ve named our best-selling product, Duckpin Pale Ale after Baltimore’s version of bowling. I grew up going duckpin bowling in Towson, and my brewery regularly hosts events at the Stoneleigh Lanes. We take our staff for holiday parties to the Patterson.”

He envisions the Union Collective as a place that will be busy with workers making products with a Baltimore accent. He does not envision the site as a location for fancy restaurants.

“If a bakery were to open here and make bread, I could see it have a sandwich shop, but not a full restaurant,” Benesch said.

He and his partners are collaborating with Seawall Development, which has worked on similar redevelopment efforts during the past decade in the Remington, Woodberry, Hampden and Medfield Heights neighborhoods. Southway Builders is now in the process of outfitting the old warehouse and installing the brewing tanks and partitions for the individual tenants’ spaces.

“I am personally grateful to Union,” said David Alima, the ice cream maker at The Charmery in Hampden. “This is not an easy thing they are doing. When I was first asked about expanding there, I said, ‘Oh, NO.’ Then I thought about it and said, ‘This is just what I need.’ ”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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