Spirits are moving in Little Washington

 In September 2018, Town Square

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By Bryan Mims

Washington is nothing if not a meeting place, where the Tar River meets the Pamlico, where freshwater meets salt, and where catfish meet mud crabs. It’s also where a bloke from across the pond meets a local girl, and their meeting of the minds concocts a bloody cool idea, y’all.

Nick Sanders is ready for “Little Washington” to meet a little bit of London. He’s an Englishman who courted a Washington native while they were both working on their MBAs at UNC Chapel Hill. He calls it “a classic North Carolina story,” having met each other — can you guess? — on Franklin Street. Sanders married Susanne in 1993 and assumed they’d live happily ever after in the land of gin and Yorkshire pudding. But the tug of home pulled at Susanne, and in 2017, the couple relocated from London to Washington.

Back in town, they noticed a stately, if neglected, three-story building at the corner of West Main and Respess streets. It had the stone veneer and front-door columns customary of bygone banks. They bought the former Bank of America building with intentions of pouring money back into it — in the form of gin.

The Hackney will include a gin distillery, restaurant and 14-room boutique hotel. The name is inspired by the hipster-hangout district in east London known for its artisan restaurants and pubs. Sanders’ menu will reflect London’s “eclectic style” while mixing in some of the star staples of the coastal South. Wash it all down with a little gin and juice (or a glass of wine or mug of beer), and you have what could become a destination — a meeting place, if you like — in this city of just under 10,000 that is the seat of Beaufort County. With $220,000 in grants, including $200,000 from the state Main Street Solutions Fund, Sanders began construction on The Hackney in August. He expects to open the restaurant by the end of 2018, with the distillery opening mid-2019. The owners plan to invest more than $1 million in equipment and building upgrades.

Downtown Washington isn’t just raising a glass to gin. Right across the street, in the old Fowle & Sons General Merchandise building, a brewery is slowly taking shape. Aided by a $500,000 state grant, Smithfield-based developer New Vision Partners LLC will renovate the building that will house Castle Island Brewery, named for an island in the Pamlico River. The brewery, which involves additional private investment of $700,000, is expected to open in 2019.

“The buzz is, in a small city, as soon as a brewery goes in, you pull more tourists in,” says Thad Aley, the exhibits and events coordinator at Arts of the Pamlico, the local arts council located inside the iconic Turnage Theatre on West Main Street that opened in 1913. Standing beneath the theater’s marquee, where one might expect to see the names of Mickey Rooney and Humphrey Bogart in big, black letters, he points out the three-story buildings that form the brick-and-mortar heart of Washington, where once-shuttered rooms are being converted into apartments.

“There are a few in these, there are a few above the ice cream shop,” he says, his eyes scanning the facades. “Above the pizza place is a fully renovated apartment. We have an Airbnb with two rooms.” A block away, on Gladden Street, the old railroad station has been converted into the Washington Civic Center, providing meeting space for as many as 300 people. “Now all we need is a grocery store,” Aley says with a chuckle.

The Turnage Theater itself is a story of decline and renaissance. After its early run of vaudeville shows, owner C.A. Turnage turned it into a movie theater in the 1930s. But by the 1970s, bigger cinemas opened in the area, and the old-fashioned Turnage fell into disrepair and turned out the lights in 1978. Today, the 432-seat theater is owned by Arts of the Pamlico. “Musical theater is big in this city,” Aley says. “For a city this size, it’s very arts- and music-centered.”

As Washington works to shine the spotlight on downtown, its waterfront will always play a leading role. The city has spent $4.5 million on a mile-and-a-half-long promenade along the Pamlico River, constructed in 1993, where sailboats and yachts pose quietly against the docks, as white and graceful as egrets.

Washington, about a two-hour drive from the Outer Banks, capitalizes on its location among the Inner Banks, where freshwater streams mix with the salt of the sea to create waterways known as estuaries. This geography makes Washington a fitting locale for the North Carolina Estuarium, an environmental center with more than 200 exhibits. The center opened in 1998 and attracts as many as 17,000 visitors a year, including about 6,000 schoolchildren.

With the Pamlico as background and patriotism at the forefront, Washington became the first town in America to be named for the nation’s first president — well before he became the first president. When local planter Thomas Bonner donated land on his farm to start a new town in the 1770s, the shot heard round the world had already been fired and the town’s namesake soon would cross the Delaware. Originally called Forks of the Tar, the town was renamed Washington in 1776.

“We were the original Washington,” says City Manager Bobby Roberson. “We’ve got the paperwork and can prove it.” So there you have it: Washington was Washington a good 14 years before the Founding Fathers got around to establishing that city on the Potomac. More than two centuries later, Little Washington remains mostly, well, little: Its population has been largely unchanged since 1990, while Beaufort County claims nearly 48,000 residents.

Much of the economy here is based on farming and forestry, as affirmed by the pine plantations and row crops of soybeans, tobacco and corn filling the spaces between the county’s web of wetlands. The spongy, sandy terrain is also rich in phosphates, deposited here eons ago by a receding coastline and now used in crop and lawn fertilizers. Beaufort County’s largest private employer is Nutrien Ltd.’s Aurora Phosphate, a massive mine on about 20,000 acres 30 miles southeast of Washington. It’s owned by Saskatchewan, Canada-based Nutrien, formed from the January merger of Potash Corp. and Agrium Inc. The world’s second-largest producer of nitrogen fertilizers employs about 800 people at the Aurora site.

In addition to agriculture, manufacturing does some heavy lifting for the area’s economy. Local residents make syringes and medical tubing at ITW Medical, commercial air filters at Camfil and machine-shop equipment at Oak Ridge Industries. They make boats. They bottle Cokes.

But the identity of Washington is in the wrap-around porches of its old neighborhoods dotted with bed-and-breakfast inns, and in the rivers and estuaries that twist through the landscape like ribbons. Washington is the thwacking of the screen door at Bill’s Hot Dogs — a landmark since 1928 — and the lifting of a glass of sauvignon blanc at Down On Main Street, a casual spot serving seafood, pasta and sandwiches.

Halfway between the Triangle and the Outer Banks, Little Washington is big on small town, down east appeal. Consider it a place to meet, order another round and drink in the waterfront views.

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