With the opening of Dead Lightning Distillery this month, downtown New Cumberland is continuing a resurgence that would’ve been considered unlikely four years ago.
The distillery is located at 311 Bridge Street, in what was the cigar bar at Coakley’s – the former staple hangout of the West Shore community that closed in 2014 amidst bankruptcy proceedings.
With the property under new ownership since last year, Dead Lightning Distillery follows Funtastik skate shop as a new occupant of the vast Coakley’s building.
“The response has been incredible,” said distillery owner Andrea Montgomery. “We’ve had huge turnouts, and a very diverse crowd – we have people in here in suits, and people with two teeth.”
That juxtaposition — attracting both the white-collar crowd as well as New Cumberland’s blue collar base — is critical to expanding the borough’s economic base, especially as local government embarks on a revitalization plan that will hopefully attract more business interest to the area.
“Having this success with the distillery as we’re heading into to the revitalization plan is a great sign,” said New Cumberland Borough Councilman Don Kibler, who has spearheaded the planning effort. “It really lends credence to what we’re trying to do here.”
Dead Lightning Distillery is a memorial to Montgomery’s son, Skyler, who passed away two years ago at the age of 21.
Skyler was an “honest-to-god moonshiner,” Montgomery said, distilling his own spirits and giving them to friends and family. He was also an ardent Grateful Dead fan, inspiring the distillery’s tie-dye bottle labels and other motifs.
Shortly before his death, the family had talked about starting a licensed establishment so Skyler could sell his spirits commercially.
“Three months before he passed, we had started talking about getting a business together for him,” Montgomery said. “He made the best-tasting stuff you’ll ever have.”
Following Skyler’s unexpected death, Montgomery decided to keep going.
“I had to put my energy into something. It was either curl up into a fetal position or move forward,” Montgomery said. “I got my license on his birthday a year ago, and we’ve been working non-stop since.”
The distilling is done by Tom Gribb, a friend of Skyler’s who made much of his distilling equipment, Montgomery said.
The space itself was immediately attractive and in surprisingly good shape. The Coakley’s cigar bar space had been renovated about five years beforehand, and sat unused for most of that time.
“It felt just like Skyler’s living room, which is what we wanted,” Montgomery said.
The former Coakley’s property is owned by a group of local investors that includes New Cumberland Mayor Doug Morrow, who has also become a major proponent of revitalization, both at his own property and elsewhere.
“The mayor approached us and I started looking into it. When I walked in, I knew it was the perfect fit,” Montgomery said.
While Dead Lightning Distillery is the most recent addition to New Cumberland’s post-recession wave of businesses, it isn’t the first.
In July 2016, tattoo artist Steve Skelly ventured into starting his own shop, leasing the space directly across from what was then a totally vacant Coakley’s.
“It’s just good to get back and come set up where I grew up, and bring something back to the area,” Skelly said. “There’s nothing but potential here.”
Skelly was living in Philadelphia, and frequently commuting to New York City – an hour-and-twenty-minute run each way, he said. Now, Skelly’s commute is about three minutes from his home in New Cumberland to his shop on Bridge Street.
Not only that, he’s now across the street from a childhood friend, Aaron Wilson, who opened the new Funtastik location in part of the former Coakley’s space at the end of last year.
Skelly and Wilson skateboarded together as kids, and both ended up wanting to bring their passions back to the community as adults. Wilson purchased Funtastik in 2010, which had two existing locations in Mechanicsburg and York.
“I’m excited because we’ve gotten more and more people who are excited about a location in New Cumberland,” Wilson said. “Mechanicsburg is not that far away, but it takes a while to get there, especially for the Harrisburg crowd.”
A location like New Cumberland, Wilson said, lends itself to someone who is intimately familiar with the town. If you aren’t a local and an avid skater yourself, Wilson said, you wouldn’t’ think New Cumberland has enough of a skateboard community to support a dedicated shop.
“As a skater, we go by the old adage ‘if you build it, they will come,’” Wilson said. “People asked me ‘are there enough skaters in New Cumberland to support a shop?’ My answer was ‘of course there are.’ But if you’re not here and you’re not active in the community, you’ll never see it.”
Being located on a walkable stretch of Bridge Street amplifies that effect.
“I think it definitely helps to add awareness. It’s always good to have more eyes seeing what you’re doing and more feet crossing your path,” Wilson said. “We’re definitely gaining some momentum here. We have a really good vibe going on.”
The borough, Kibler noted, is currently in the midst of selecting a vendor for a redevelopment study that should point the municipal government toward additional ways to spur growth.
The borough’s solicitation for proposals garnered responses from some “top tier, national-level firms,” Kibler said, indicating the momentum behind the effort.
The borough’s Request for Proposal document notes a number of challenges which new Cumberland hopes to overcome. Not only has there been turnover in commercial storefronts, but also in housing, with a large number of absentee landlords using the borough’s housing stock as an investment opportunity. While some have been diligent in improving her properties, others have been less so, Kibler noted.
From 2010 to 2016, the borough’s rate of owner-occupied housing dropped from 74 percent of residential units to 67 percent. The renters that have come into the area also face increased hardship – in 2010, 20.7 percent of renters paid more than 35 percent of their gross income in rent. As of 2016, that number had increased to 34.2 percent, according to census data.
The borough also faces challenges with an aging populace, one of the key drivers of residential and commercial turnover. The borough’s median age is 41.8 years, slightly higher than Pennsylvania’s 40.6.
Once a consultant is selected, the borough’s RFP calls for an extensive redevelopment planning process, involving an assessment of existing infrastructure and resources, community meetings to prioritize needs, and assessment of the current market for residential and commercial space.
The ultimate goal will be a framework of tasks whereby the borough can attract new investment, ultimately increasing quality of life.
The borough hopes to select a consultant for the study by the end of April, Kibler said.