Cannon Ball Brewing Changes Trajectory of a Neighborhood, Sparks Rebirth

Cannon Ball Brewing Changes Trajectory of a Neighborhood, Sparks Rebirth

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Craft beer is a powerful force, capable of bringing people together, supporting charitable groups, and even changing minds every once in a while. The changes are usually one on one – a brewery interacting with an individual or an single group to do good. However, sometimes it can be bigger. It’s one thing to build a brewery to serve and be served by a neighborhood, but it’s quite another to open a brewpub and have it spawn a neighborhood or neighborhood revitalization.

In our continuing series on how craft beer can provide opportunities to entrepreneurs, here is a story about how a neighborhood brewpub has helped spark the rebirth of a neighborhood. Mark Swartz and his wife Tania opened Cannon Ball Brewing at 17th Street and Bellefontaine Avenue in November of 2016. When I told people in Indianapolis that there was going to be a nice brewpub with stunning beer and food in the Kennedy-King neighborhood of Indianapolis, they looked at me kind of strangely; this was not a craft beer sort of environment.

North of 16th Street was a lost area. It is true that the revitalization was moving east from the Herron Morton district of Pennsylvania, Talbot, and Delaware Streets, with some work being done along College Avenue as well. But east of College had not been included in this rebirth. Yet this is where Mark, a resident of Herron-Morton, decided to locate his brewpub. Luckily, the areas of craft beer don’t necessarily align with most reinvestment strategies. Richard Florida, in CityLab wrote, “As it turns out, the craft beer revolution, like many other urban economic phenomena, is highly clustered. The good news is that many of these clusters are taking shape in places that have been subject to disinvestment and deindustrialization.” This defines the pre-Cannon Ball King Park neighborhood to a tee.

photo credit: Cannon Ball Brewing

The corner of 17th and Bellefontaine had two very old buildings, one on the northwest and one on the southwest corner. The office of the King Park Neighborhood Association were in one part of the building on the north side, but that was it. The houses in the vicinity were aging and for the most part not well cared for. Nevertheless, the 1899 F.X. Erath building was the choice Mark made for his brewpub.

Mark Swartz and Erin Kem, he with his beer and she with her cooking, soon started to pull in locals. Certainly they also drew people in from farther away as well as more people heard about them, but still, the local neighborhood provides them with most of their business. This is because Mark immediately made Canon Ball (named for Erwin “Cannonball” Baker, an early motorcycle racer and first NASCAR president who made Indianapolis his home for more than 50 years) a fixture in neighborhood meetings and events. Mark estimates that 60-70% of his patrons are “ultralocal” and come back again and again, once again providing evidence for my hypothesis that neighborhood brewpubs are the most bubble-proof entities.

It wasn’t long before this involvement had wider effects. I talked to Andrew Brindley of HE Homes, the principal architecture and construction entity working in the King Park neighborhood. They had done some new construction in the area, but the opening of Cannon Ball has significantly affected their investment in the neighborhood and the number of lots and homes they have sold. Andrew told me that they had done some speculation in the vicinity, but Cannon Ball spurred them to purchase many more lots. And the brewpub has made a difference in convincing people to build in that are as well. He said that one customer was on the fence about a purchase, so Andrew sent him over to Cannon Ball to think about it. He called a bit later saying that he would buy and build, and the reason was that Cannon Ball was exactly 75 steps from his prospective back door.

Deviled egg tacos? Yes – Erin Kem at Cannon Ball Brewing can cook with the best of them. photo credit: Indianapolis Monthly

To that point, James Fallows and his wife Deborah published an article in the Atlantic Monthly that stated that a sign that a small town is on its way back is the presence of a brewery (and/or distillery, see below about West Fork). Jeff Alworth in All About Beer Magazine went further, and made my point for me, “I’d go a step or two further. He suggests that the appearance of a craft brewery is one result of community health—but I’d argue that it’s at least in part the cause of a community’s vitality.” A neighborhood within a large city is a lot like a small town, so I buy into this argument completely, although there are some differences.

Brindley told me that living downtown isn’t about schools, it isn’t about yards or quiet – it’s about amenities. Is your site close to food, music, entertainment, culture, etc. In this regard, Cannon Ball makes a big difference. Yet, it is also true that more new construction and neighbors helps Mark’s business as well. The more interested neighbors he has, the more business he will do. Land prices have increased significantly in the area, allowing current residents to recognize a windfall or to use equity to renovate the property. This is also a nice part of the Cannon Ball story, the neighborhood hasn’t gentrified and pushed out the former residents, it has been a mixed housing revitalization, with everyone brought along for the ride.

But there are a lot of new neighbors. I counted more than forty lots owned by HE homes in the neighborhood, more than a dozen new homes finished or under construction, another dozen flips or renovations, and two Habitat for Humanity house within four square blocks of Cannon Ball Brewing. Andrew said that having a catalyst business in the neighborhood is a common spark for revitalization, but that the King Kennedy Park change has been significantly faster and more robust than most. I say that Cannon Ball was that special catalyst. Mark says, “I think it (the development) was going to happen anyway, but I think we accelerated it. There is a lot going on, but we were the first. It makes us feel good to see that we are having a positive impact on the neighborhood.”

The Kennedy-King Memorial near Cannon Ball Brewing – here is a neighborhood in credit: Kennedy King Memorial Initiative

The impact hasn’t been all residential either. Cynthia Hooks, president of the King Park Neighborhood Association told me that the neighborhood was excited for the coming of Cannon Ball, but they didn’t anticipate the effect it would have on commercial influx. In the months after Cannon Ball’s opening, Rivet Creative Group has taken up residence on the southwest corner of Bellefontaine and 17th. This group now makes T-shirts and other merchandise for Cannon Ball, so the synergy just goes on and on.

To that end as well, West Fork Whiskey is a craft distillery finishing their build out on that same corner – Cannon Ball will soon have barrels readily available for aging beers, just like the relationship Chilly Water Brewing has with Hotel Tango across Virginia Avenue (more on this story soon). It easy to see why this burgeoning renewal is taking place, both Andrew and Cynthia remarked that it’s hard not to get excited about King Park when you are around Mark, he is passionate about his work and the neighborhood, and it makes you passionate too.

Both Cynthia and Andrew couldn’t overestimate the effect that Cannon Ball has had on revitalizing the Kennedy King area. The Monon Rail Trail had been two blocks away for years without any big surge in construction, but bring in one brewery and the neighborhood changes overnight – this is the power of craft beer.

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