ENGLEWOOD — Englewood Brews, once a promising enterprise planned for a beleaguered Southwest Side neighborhood, may be dead in the water as owners, a local development corporation and the area’s alderman clash over the project.
Englewood Brews was to be the first taproom and brewery in a predominantly Black neighborhood. It has been a four-year-long labor of love for owner Lesley Roth and her partner, Steve Marchese. The pair raised tens of thousands of dollars and started construction on the project last year in a vacant storefront at 821 W. 63rd St.
Then the work stopped.
Roth blamed the Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation, which held the lease on the building, but officials for the organization denied shutting down any work. Leaders did confirm the group canceled Englewood Brews lease in spring of this year after months of legal wrangling, though they provided few details.
That touched off a months-long feud that has ensnared Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), with Englewood Brews owners publicly accusing local leaders of sabotaging the project.
“Our brewery is about celebrating what’s great about each other. GECDC doesn’t want that,” Roth wrote in an Instagram post in May. “They are opportunists who want to take away the community’s rights of self-determination. They would rather dictate to Englewood about what businesses are good for the neighborhood and what’s good for community members.”
But Derrick Warren, executive director of the Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation, said the group long supported the project despite numerous roadblocks and a “lack of respect” from Roth and Marchese.
“We have worked extremely hard to expand the positive reputation of the GECDC. With this in mind, it is disappointing that Englewood Brews is attempting to defame our organization by their misrepresentation of events as it pertains to the termination of their sublease,” Warren said in a statement to Block Club.
“Throughout our entire business relationship with Englewood Brews, the GECDC has acted properly, both legally and ethically, with the best interest of the Englewood community in mind.”
Work At A Standstill
The purpose of the community-minded Englewood Brews venture was twofold: to give Englewood’s economy a much-needed shot in the arm while broadening access to an industry that has traditionally shut out Black and indigenous people of color.
Roth and Marchese launched an IndieGoGo campaign in December to raise $50,000 in hopes of completing the buildout of their space. The campaign has netted nearly $36,000 so far.
Construction started that month but was abruptly halted.
Roth claims their contractor found asbestos, which she said isn’t uncommon. She said they notified the development corporation and U.S. Bank, which owns the building.
“U.S. Bank totally understood the issue and was fine, since we were paying for the remediation, and encouraged us to keep going,” Roth said. “But GECDC used this as leverage to ask us for additional assurances that we would pay them a contribution.”
Officials with the development corporation said Englewood Brews subleased the space for free, even though they valued it at $15,000 a month. They also said the lease contained certain terms Roth and Marchese violated, but they said they could not be more specific.
The two sides went back and forth through their attorneys for a year. The development corporation gave the owners one last chance to comply with the lease before it was ultimately terminated in April.
Exasperated, Roth recently took to social media to criticize the group, imploring supporters of the venture to contact Taylor in hopes of saving the project.
“The failure of this nonprofit organization to support economic development and continued recovery of Englewood is exacerbating the community’s wealth gap,” Roth wrote on Instagram. “GECDC is allowing Englewood to be left out of moving forward and receiving a portion of the economic benefit the rest of the City receives.”
Taylor told Block Club she felt like she was being attacked.
“I’m getting calls into my office about them, but no one had talked to me, so I didn’t know where this was coming from,” said Taylor, who added she was open to mediating a conversation between the two parties. “I have no problem with talking to them, but that post was unnecessary.”
Taylor and Roth are supposed to have a phone conversation this week.
“We love to support nonprofits in Englewood. So many of them are doing good work, and we know that this one organization doesn’t speak for all of Englewood,” Roth said. “But they’re taking away this opportunity from the community and essentially diminishing the positive impact so many people are trying to effect.”
In his written statement, Warren said the development corporation “exhibited the utmost support and patience” in its four-year relationship with the brewery’s owners as they worked to overcome business-related obstacles.
“Given the level of support the GECDC has provided to Englewood Brews, it is appalling for the GECDC to be falsely accused of extortion,” Warren wrote. “It is quite disrespectful and insulting for Englewood Brews to suggest that the GECDC would in any way extort a prospective community business, or anyone for that matter.”
Warren ended the letter by criticizing Roth and her partner over the social media posts, saying that they were “indicative of their lack of true community engagement.”
“… Englewood Brews has a lack of respect for the GECDC, our alderwoman, our community, corporate partners, as well as the impactful relationships the GECDC has built for the benefit of the Englewood community,” Warren said.
With work at a standstill and community relationships frayed, the entrepreneurs now wonder if their $300,000 investment will be for nothing.
“They’ve destabilized us,” Roth said. “We could’ve provided skills, internships, career pipelines. Now we’ve got to figure out what our next steps are.”
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.