MORGANTON, N.C. – Like many small towns in the post-manufacturing South, Morganton has spent the better part of two decades struggling to keep its economy alive. As it turns out, the town just needed to pop the top on a few craft breweries.
The economy in this picturesque town of 18,000 in the Blue Ridge foothills is now hopping thanks to the emergence of a craft beer scene that didn’t even exist a decade ago.
Catawba Brewing Co. started Morganton’s beer-vitalization by opening a downtown brewery in 2009. In 2013, Fonta Flora opened just a few blocks away. Together, Catawba and Fonta Flora created a synergy that spurred an overall resurgence in downtown Morganton and set the stage for a third brewery, Sidetracked, to open this past April.
“Anybody who loves craft anything wants to go to the home office and see where it began, and we’re the birthplace of Catawba Brewing, the birthplace of Fonta Flora, and now the birthplace of Sidetracked,” says Ed Phillips, tourism director for Burke County. “We’re not a secondary or tertiary market for craft beer. We are our own home market and that attracts people to come here.”
For most of the last half century businesses struggled in downtown Morganton, even when the manufacturing economy was healthy. But nowadays, store fronts are filling up and Fonta Flora co-owner David Bennett, born and raised in Morganton, has noticed the change.
“When you re-invent yourself, you’ve got to look at different things as far as what’s going to drive the local economy. For us we’ve got a great mixture of dining and drinking establishments downtown,” Bennett says. “Even when things were going well here 20-30 years ago, things like higher-end restaurants would not have survived. Now we have a handful that have been here for many years and continue to do well. We’re actually seeing people from other places coming into Morganton to go out on the town for the evening, so those are great positives to see.”
Sharon Jablonski has been Main Street Director for the City of Morganton for more than a quarter century. When she looks around downtown and sees breweries, specialty stories, upscale eateries, bottle shops, galleries and more, it brings a smile to her face.
“I have naysayers from my early days come up to me now and say, ‘Wow, I cannot believe the changes,’” Jablonski says. “It’s very rewarding. And people are going to be really surprised over the next 24 months because there is a lot more coming.”
As tourism director, Phillips was one of the first to notice the energy craft breweries brought to downtown. Catawba Brewing got the ball rolling, often hosting bands and events. As Catawba grew, so did its reputation, largely in part to its White Zombie, the most popular canned craft beer in the Southeast. Catawba’s popularity led it to expand to four breweries, including two in Asheville and one in Charlotte, but Morganton remains the flagship location.
Fonta Flora burst onto the scene as the little brewery that dazzled the nation with creative brews from locally-sourced ingredients. It won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2014 and captured another gold in 2015. Fonta Flora also launched the State of Origin Beer Festival in Morganton, which showcases top-notch breweries that focus on local ingredients.
“Fonta Flora has become one of our strongest attractions and helped changed the face of downtown,” says Jablonski.
A couple of years ago, Phillips saw Fonta Flora’s appeal first-hand. While driving through town one afternoon, he noticed a line of people stretching out the brewery’s door and down the block. He went inside, found out they were doing a special bottle release and decided to count the people in line. He tallied 508.
“More than 500 people were waiting in line from all over the country to purchase that bottle release,” says Phillips. “Somebody had flown in from California. There were people from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina. That’s the definition of a destination brewery.”
David Bennett, co-owner of Fonta Flora with his brother, Mark, gives a lot of credit for their success to brewmaster Todd Boera, who was recently featured on the cover of BeerAdvocate magazine. Bennett also credits local leaders for accepting new ideas for downtown.
“The key for a business like us to survive and thrive in a small community is buy-in from the local community and local government at the city and county levels,” Bennett explains. “A lot of the renaissance of downtown Morganton has been driven by local government being progressive in a sense that they’re open to new ideas and willing to listen to alternate theories for development.”
One thing everybody has noticed is the number of visitors Morganton has been able to attract from Interstate 40. It is North Carolina’s east-west interstate and serves as a primary route to the popular tourist destination of Asheville, about an hour away.
“The marketing that we do on Interstate 40, which has 90,000-plus vehicles a day, draws a lot of visitors from I-40 who are curious about what’s going on in downtown Morganton and in Burke County,” Phillips explains.
The recent opening of Sidetracked Brewery has only helped in that regard.
“People traveling down Interstate 40 may not stop for one brewery or two breweries, but they may stop for three breweries,” says Sidetracked head brewer Joseph Ackerman. “Morganton is only two miles off the interstate. It’s a great place to be because you can walk to all three breweries in 10 minutes. Morganton is maintaining its small-town feel, but it is more of a destination town now. I think the breweries are helping it to be more of a destination.”
And, Phillips points out, the craft beer scene extends past the three breweries.
“We also have two taprooms – Brown Mountain Bottle Works and the Nook. Within six blocks there are five craft beer attractions and it’s all walkable,” Phillips says. “You can park for free around the courthouse square or in various places downtown. It’s like a craft beer village.”
For info on visiting Morganton, go to www.DiscoverBurkeCounty.com or call 888-462-2921.