By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
STEVENSVILLE — There seemed to be something missing in downtown Stevensville that other cities throughout Southwest Michigan had begun to accumulate.
With so many breweries popping up in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, the village on the outskirts of the Twin Cities was one of the remaining municipalities to not have a barley footprint. That changed three months ago, when three entrepreneurs opened the Watermark Brewing Co.
David Cockell, Chris Mason and Justin Schaul had been looking for property for six months when they turned their attention to the Stevensville-Lincoln Township area.
“As craft beer had already become popular in the area with places like The Livery and Greenbush, Stevensville wanted to have their own stake in the ground as well,” Mason recalled. “We turned a house, two vacant lots and a park into a brewery. (Stevensville) partnered with us and said they we would love to have us.”
There was a building that had tax liens on it that led to a few conversations between the three friends and village officials.
Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski was serving as Stevensville’s interim manager when Cockle, Mason and Schaul approached the village in search of viable property. Witkowski told them about the village-owned spot and took them there.
“I told them that the village was willing to work with them to get a fair price,” Witkowski said. “There’s not much competition here and it was in a downtown. The council and Watermark agreed to a selling price and the rest is history.”
Witkowski said the village then used a new law that kept the taxable value the same on the property for a number of years. This helped Stevensville because it was getting a new business while enhancing the tax base.
“The village value of that property will be uncapped and be brought back up to value,” Witkowski said.
Bringing a business onto the parcels had another benefit.
Former Stevensville Village Manager Todd Gardner had borrowed money he wasn’t authorized to do in order to buy the property that houses Watermark.
Gardner’s illegal actions came during a stretch of years when he embezzled more than $270,000 from village funds. While Gardner was sentenced to prison on a wire fraud conviction, the land is now benefiting the village from its sale to the restored taxable value.
Mason said they closed on the property Nov. 3, 2015, and broke ground on the 7,200-square-foot brewery a day later. It would be another eight months before Watermark would be open.
The Watermark effect
The three entrepreneurs have been brewing together since they met in 2014.
Mason and Schaul were living in Chicago at the time and home-brewed together when they discovered each other were obsessed with craft beer. Then they met Cockell, who happened to study biochemistry at Purdue University.
It was a perfect storm. Schaul was already working in the hospitality industry in Chicago. Cockell’s education in biochemistry would be a foundation for making the product. Mason, who worked at the Chicago Tribune in its digital media division, would handle marketing. Mason said it was his second job at a popular liquor store that helped with his decision to form a brewery.
The beer lineup is ever-changing at Watermark. Within the last three months, they’ve tried more than 30 beer recipes.
They supplemented food wants by encouraging food trucks to park right outside the brewery on certain days. It’s kept the beer drinker there longer and brings more business to the village.
“We didn’t want to do a restaurant because then you have customers that get rushed in and out,” Mason said. “We just wanted to open up with beer, because that’s what we’re interested in.”
With this being Stevensville’s first brewery, Witkowski said the community has responded wonderfully.
The Village Council could have sold the land for residential housing, but Witkowski said they wanted something commercial that could benefit the other downtown businesses. Watermark would be a way to help change the image and perception of downtown Stevensville.
“The idea was to create some sort of nightlife for Stevensville,” Witkowski recalled. “Fill up the parking lots and streets. Before Watermark came in, there were no cars after 5 o’clock. They are a huge draw as it’s helped other businesses because of the foot traffic.”
Schaul said they’ve appreciated the community’s reception.
“The cool part is, we thought there would be more Illinois plates in front of our place when we first opened,” Schaul said. “But it was actually a lot of Stevensville residents. We wanted to give Stevensville something a little different, and it’s been great to get to know everyone.”
As more breweries open up and the craft beer market becomes saturated, Mason said they want to stay as small as they can.
For now, all that matters is how the community has adopted the brewery.
“We don’t want to be on every shelf and compete with the Founders and Bell’s of the world,” Mason said. “We’re just trying to have fun and make beer.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 3, 2016)