A former auto repair shop on Bel Air's North Main Street could be the site of a microbrewery and restaurant and a key for development on the north side of town, according to the business owner.
"We're really early in the process," Phillip Rhudy, the owner and brewmaster for the Independent Brewing Co., said Monday.
Signs in the window, however, announce the brewery will be coming in late fall or early winter.
Rhudy, a 49-year-old Fallston resident, has been a home brewer of beer for about 25 years. He is a former sales manager for a boating equipment firm and remains a consultant in the marine industry.
"It was time to look at doing something different," he said of the career change.
Rhudy said he has not yet applied to the Town of Bel Air for permits, but he and his partners recently signed a lease for the property at 418 N. Main St., which was previously occupied by M&J Complete Auto Care before the business was moved to a new building on Ellendale Street.
Rhudy and his partners have started the process of establishing the business, which he said comes with about $600,000 in startup costs, despite the current strict limitations on new development because of state, county and municipal concerns over Bel Air's water supply.
The Harford County Health Department and the Maryland Department of the Environment have curtailed the town's ability to issue building and subdivision permits while government officials and the operators of the Maryland American Water Company, which supplies water to Bel Air residents, work through water supply issues.
Projects only qualify for a building permit as long as they do not increase demand on the water system.
Rhudy said the microbrewery will use much more water than the auto shop, but "I have enough confidence in a swift resolution that we're going ahead and moving forward."
Bel Air Town Administrator Jim Fielder said Monday that town officials are "working cooperatively" with the Harford County government, the county health department, MDE and Maryland American.
"It's a complex issue, and it takes some time to resolve," Fielder said.
He said there is "nothing specific in terms of actual steps to move forward" yet.
Fielder said town officials "look forward to" receiving applications from Independent Brewing.
"It could be a good project for the town, needless to say," he noted.
Rhudy's main partner is Harry O'Neill, founder and president of Beacon Environmental Services Inc., of Forest Hill. They have six other investors, he said.
Rhudy said he did not have the other investors' permission to release their names, but he noted they are local business people.
The partners have sought additional funding from a bank loan and through the online "crowdfunding" site Kickstarter.
"Basically, it's a small project," he explained. "It's going to be a combination of a 10-barrel brewery and a small restaurant."
Rhudy said 10 barrels per batch of beer would be produced at the brewery.
"It's really about the community and bringing a nice craft beer establishment to an area that could be redeveloped," he said.
Banners proclaiming the arrival of Independent Brewing have been placed in the windows and hung from one of the four garage doors of the former auto repair shop, which Rhudy said is owned by the McComas family of Harford County.
Half of the garage would be converted into the brewery and a kitchen, and the other half would be a tap room and public gathering area.
The former showroom would serve as a formal dining area.
Rhudy said the plan is for visitors to either buy the beer for on-site consumption or take it to go in growlers. They would also sell the beer in kegs through a distributor.
He plans to eventually put the beer in "smaller packaging" such as cans. If the company does incorporate canning, it would be through a mobile canning company that would bring all of the necessary equipment to the brewery.
"We have no intentions, in that location, of putting in a bottling or processing facility," Rhudy said.
He said mobile canning is "an ideal solution for a small brewery because they come with everything they need."
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The new company has also been announced via the "Independent Brewing Company" page on Facebook, and the company truck, a 1951 Ford F1 pickup, was in Bel Air's Independence Day parade Friday.
"Our Facebook page blew up in the next two days [after the parade], with people finding out about us," Rhudy said.
The site is within a cluster of commercial buildings at the intersection of North Main and Ellendale streets, and the building slated for the brewery is between the Splish Splash car wash and The Mill of Bel Air supply center.
It is also a few blocks from the trail head of the southern portion of the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail at Ellendale and Williams Street.
That section covers nearly two miles between Williams Street and Heavenly Waters Park along North Tollgate Road, according to The Ma & Pa Heritage Trail website.
Rhudy said he hopes the presence of the brewery and restaurant would help spur the connection of the southern section of the trail and the northern portion in Forest Hill, which covers 1.7 miles between Friends Park and Blake's Venture Park, according to the trail website.
"We'd like to have our project be very centric to the trail and bring in runners and cyclists and dog walkers," he said.