On humid evenings, the sounds of laughter, conversation and falling Jenga blocks fill the air. Families mill about, playing games. The portion of the cavernous space they occupy—made cozy by fairy lights, bistro tables and artwork—is almost unrecognizable as the condensed-milk company, and later cannery, it once was. Years of planning, effort and love have transformed a derelict section on Kennett Square’s Birch Street into the summer hot spot that is the Creamery.
The vision of Sandra Mulry and Chatham Financial founder Michael Bontrager, the Creamery debuted last year and instantly took off. Residents flocked to the pop-up beer garden, which is open Thursdays-Sundays in the summer months. It’s an unexpected hangout, tucked among industrial buildings filled with tractor-trailers and shipping pallets, but it works.
The breezy, fun vibe isn’t in the least indicative of the work that went into creating the space. Bontrager, who’s lived in the borough for 13 years, first found the building in 2002, as a possible location for Chatham. “I walked through it, going, ‘There’s no way we’re going to tackle this project.’ But I realized there was this old, historic building underneath it,” he says.
Nearly a decade later, stripped of elements like lighting, Bontrager would rediscover it. Mulry, a 19-year borough resident, initially struggled to see the potential. Still, Bontrager was certain of it and purchased the building in 2011. Unsure of what to do with it, the structure sat empty until 2015.
In the fall of that year, Historic Kennett Square was launching an economic development study to identify areas that could be positively changed. One of those just happened to be Birch Street.
The study, conducted by Todd Poole, who specializes in economic development, and Mark Keener, a town planner and architect, indicated that more buildings should be repurposed, bringing culture to the area. Its ultimate conclusion for Birch Street was to create a “maker’s district,” with galleries, jazz clubs, restaurants, cafés, a beer garden, a theater and a craft shop. Doing so, they predicated, would transform the forgotten former hub of industrial commerce into something far more palatable.
Outdoor green spaces with a funky artistic feel, bike lanes, and multiuse sections with apartment and townhome living were part of the study’s conclusions. Reclaiming warehouses and incorporating their natural materials, much the way the Creamery has, would create a chic urban aesthetic.
While the results were promising, the study indicated that the Creamery would need “more to be developed around it” in order to survive. And that seems to be happening. WorKS, an artisan studio located just a few minutes’ walk away on adjacent Walnut Street, opened last fall. The reclaimed former garage is home to a collection of vendors, offering everything from art to leather goods to jewelry. “We are a bit surprised that it is happening so quickly, but are thrilled to see the economic development taking place in that area. The Creamery and WorKS are a welcome addition to Kennett Square, and we are thankful for the vision of the people behind these projects,” says Mary Hutchins, executive director of Historic Kennett Square. “It’s a pleasure to watch businesses pop up in an area that a few years ago wouldn’t be considered a destination.”
Development may take time, but the possibilities are there. “Our hope is that we can bridge Birch Street to State Street and the whole town,” says Mulry.
While the study’s findings wouldn’t be released for another year, Bontrager and Mulry were clearly onto something. During a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit their daughter, Bontrager and his wife, Dot, along with Mulry and her husband, Joe, found inspiration at a seasonal market in an old industrial part of town. The repurposed space bustled with families, sparking an idea for their vacant building. “We could do this to that old, ugly industrial property,” Bontrager recalls thinking.
So they set about transforming some 30,000 square feet of the Creamery, which accounts for only about one third of its overall space, and working with the township to secure a temporary use permit. “It wasn’t a totally developed idea that we put together. We allowed it to evolve naturally,” Mulry says.
Both Bontrager and Mulry have their eyes on the future. This year will see a few new offerings, including a children’s garden. It will alleviate some of the congestion in the wildly popular lawn-games section, where there’s cornhole and bocce ball. The garden will have hopscotch, a sand table and a flower tunnel. “The idea is to invite the family together. Everything is a little smaller in scale than the other side,” says Mulry.
Permanent restrooms are a welcome addition this year, and they’ve fixed the kinks in the cooling systems so that the 16 craft-beer taps are now sufficiently cold. There’s chef-made barbecue and a growing food-truck scene. Local artists continue to be spotlighted, and Kennett Square’s renowned contemporary realist, Robert Coleman Jackson, will even spend Thursdays in June creating a custom mural at the Creamery.
“It means so much to me and Mike,” says Mulry. “We poured a lot of our souls into it.”