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Craft brewer’s too popular for an industrial park, landlord says

Iron Duke Brewing’s taproom has proved popular.
Iron Duke Brewing’s taproom has proved popular. Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

What town wouldn’t love to have a business like Iron Duke Brewing?

Since opening in 2014, the tiny craft beer company has brought new life to a partially abandoned mill complex being redeveloped in the Western Massachusetts town of Ludlow. Locals flock to its brick-and-iron taproom. Food trucks park outside. At night, musicians perform, and in the morning members of a yoga group stretch before enjoying an IPA.

“This is exactly who you want in your mill space,” said Will Reichelt, the mayor of nearby West Springfield, which several years ago tried unsuccessfully to land Iron Duke as a tenant in the city’s industrial park along the Westfield River.

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“You need that one spark to drive redevelopment, an anchor company to come in and show other businesses — the upper-end residential, the food trucks, retail, all that stuff — hey, we can do this,” Reichelt said.

But Ludlow, a town with a population of about 21,100, is in danger of losing its spark.

Iron Duke’s landlord — the nonprofit Westmass Area Development Corporation, which is redeveloping Ludlow Mills with the help of $6 million in state and federal grants — is threatening to evict the brewery, apparently because its taproom has become too popular.

“Iron Duke Brewery was permitted to set up primarily as a manufacturing operation,” Westmass chief executive Eric Nelson wrote to the company last year. “The tasting room is not the intended primary use. Your growth and the activities occurring associated with your brewery has created liability issues.”

Westmass said food trucks and live entertainment violate Iron Duke’s lease and complained that brewery patrons take up too many parking spaces.

Nick Morin, the brewery’s co-owner, said Iron Duke holds all licenses required to make beer, serve it, and host live entertainment. Westmass, he said, was long aware of the food trucks and events and won’t explain why it suddenly cracked down. His best guess is that the developer has other plans for the complex, where WinnDevelopment wants to build a $60 million residential project.

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“The taproom is the economic engine that drives our business,” Morin said. “All they would say is, ‘We own the property, and we don’t want this.’ ”

Morin launched a petition to save the brewery, drawing thousands of signatures. Iron Duke has also dubbed its newest beer “Eviction Notice Black IPA.”

When that didn’t work, Iron Duke sued Westmass, telling a state court last month that the food trucks and entertainment were integral parts of its business, and noting that it spent $600,000 on renovating the mill building because it expected to renew its lease.

Jeff Green manned the bar at Iron Duke Brewing, a craft beer company in Ludlow.
Jeff Green manned the bar at Iron Duke Brewing, a craft beer company in Ludlow.Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Nelson did not respond to requests for an interview, but addressed the fight in a brief voice-mail message:

“Westmass is concerned that the success of the Iron Duke Brewery may have created public safety concerns. We are talking with Iron Duke.”

Ludlow’s leaders are not happy. In a letter to Westmass last month, the town’s planning board recalled how Ludlow had rolled out the red carpet when the developer came to town, in 2010, by expediting the permitting and waiving various restrictions.

“The Planning Board would like to remind you that we have been very agreeable to the requests of Westmass,” the officials wrote. “The issues that we are aware of seem confusing if not troubling, especially since they all seem related to the success of Iron Duke.”

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Doug Stefancik, Ludlow’s planner, said restaurants and other retail businesses were explicitly floated by Westmass as potential tenants. He can’t understand why the developer is making life difficult for an unusual business that is attracting new consumers to Ludlow.

“People like the entertainment, the food trucks — those are the things that make it different,” Stefancik said. “I mean, when else have you heard of food trucks in Ludlow?”

If the two sides can’t work things out, other nearby municipalities are eager to welcome Iron Duke. Morin has received offers from Holyoke, Palmer, and West Springfield, among others.

Reichelt, the West Springfield mayor, said he empathizes with frustrated Ludlow officials. “You help a private developer build an industrial park, you change the zoning, and now they’re coming back to haunt you?” he said.

“You have to step in and say, ‘Hey, hey, hey! This was the whole idea! Why are you messing around? You’re making us look bad!’ ”

Morin and his business partner, a friend from high school, actually want to expand at Ludlow Mills. They hope to increase production from 1,000 barrels in 2016 to at least 1,500 this year and expand their payroll to 10 employees from four. Moving would set the business back years, Morin said.

“We’ve got every dollar we ever made in our lives invested in this business,” he said. “It would be devastating if we can’t weather this storm.”

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Iron Duke Brewing’s plant also includes the brew house.
Iron Duke Brewing’s plant also includes the brew house.Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.