This Old Soda Plant Has Been Reborn as Burlington’s Premier Creative Hub
This hidden Vermont gem houses galleries, apothecaries, studios, and more.
In endlessly inventive Burlington, Vermont, one of the liveliest new hubs of creativity and collaboration isn’t on the picturesque waterfront or in the historic downtown: It's hiding in a warehouse behind a concrete parking lot in the once-abandoned industrial district called Pine Street.
Over a century ago, the building housed the bottling facility for spicy-sweet Venetian Ginger Ale. Today, the newly named Soda Plant is the base camp for a band of creatives and maker-artisans—designers, cider makers, coffee roasters, cocktail aficionados, and other small businesses—putting their stamp on Vermont’s local-centric identity.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, business on Pine Street boomed. In the biggest small city in the Green Mountain State, mills and factories cranked out brush fibers, can openers, gloves, boxed cereal, maple syrup, lumber, and coal on the Lake Champlain coastline. When industry dissolved and businesses moved elsewhere, Pine Street sat mostly idle, a map of deserted buildings and working-class housing.
But there was still life left in the place.
“In the 1980s, [the Soda Plant] was a derelict building complex that was turned into an incubator for small businesses,” says Steve Conant, current landlord of the Soda Plant’s 50,000 square feet of rentable space.
Conant has been a tenant in this refurbished, industrial-sized plot since its first renovation in the ‘80s, when he opened his custom lighting and decorative metal gallery Conant Metal & Light. He purchased the building in 2000. Eighteen years later, when the plant’s other primary tenant, the nonprofit called ReSOURCE, outgrew its rental space, Conant renovated and reopened 20,000 square-feet of incubator potential.
Today, the Soda Plant is the focal point of Pine Street’s creative heartbeat, marked by what many consider Conant’s pièce de résistance: a 6,000lb, 25-foot-tall metal rocket ship perched for launch outside the entrance.
“This is an especially positive space for businesses to be during COVID-19,” continues Conant, currently repairing a hand-blown glass owl from the 1920s with sterling silver feet. “There’s a communal feel, and a strong alignment between tenants and their missions. The Soda Plant is filled by tenants who use those spaces to generate value.”
The community within the Soda Plant includes cider brewers, wine makers, coffee savants, juice-pressers, kimchi fermentors, photographers, and yoga teachers. You’ll find artists’ galleries, jewelry designers, florists, conscious leather goods, and a creative-design nonprofit. Naturally, there’s also a modern conception of Venetian Ginger Ale, which calls back to the history and the present with old-world meets new-world soft drinks like espresso soda and extra-spicy root beer.
Small businesses include Alice & The Magician, a cocktail-inspired modern apothecary from a crew of chefs, sommeliers, and bartenders with the motto that 90% of flavor is aroma. Brio Coffee roasts small-batch beans and offers a curbside coffee tasting bar with flash-chilled espresso and velvety maple lattes. CO Cellars, a joint venture between the ZAFA Wines and Shacksbury Cider, epitomizes the collaborative spirit with co-fermented “vinous ciders” like Pretty in Pink, a blend of wild and heritage New England apples aged on valdiguié grape skins. (AKA rose wine-cider.)
“The Soda Plant is the gateway to Burlington’s South End,” said David Dolginow, co-founder of Shacksbury Cider. “The first of many repurposed industrial buildings is now dedicated to affordable workspaces where creativity is queen.”
When new visitors arrive—meandering through a quirky, enormous, post-industrial microcosm of Vermont’s food, drink and art innovation—it’s often with a sense of bewilderment and curiosity. Tenants often overhear: What is this place?
“Steve Conant’s vision of a space with open doors, collaboration between tenants and an ‘it’s what you make it’ philosophy works,” adds Dolginow.
And like any great resurgence, the Soda Plant continues to evolve.
“Soda neighbors are in constant collaboration,” Dolginow continues. “We just completed a mural installation at a local elementary school with our neighbor Soapbox Arts. We’ve been in a long-term romance with Brio Coffeeworks, collaborating (pre-pandemic) on a monthly Drag trivia, concerts, and industry events.
“It’s not hard to love your neighbors when you love what they make,” he adds.