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Action Sought For Former Beech-Nut Plant

Canajoharie, in New York’s Mohawk Valley, is home to an enormous eyesore that once served as its economic engine. Theshuttered Beech-Nut plant employed thousands throughout the 20th Century. Now, local officials are hoping to reclaim the site and redevelop it. A Washington, D.C.-based architectural organization took a tour with the hope that it can offer new ideas for the old factory. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard went along.

 “This is where it all started, Imperial Packing. Where they did the hams.”

Inside the derelict Beech-Nut plant on the banks of the Mohawk River, village Mayor Francis Avery and Canajoharie Police Chief Bryan MacFadden led a tour through dark, flooded rooms that once processed and packaged generations-worth of baby food.

The partially demolished, 1 million-square foot facility was founded here in 1891. Expanded over the years, today it is contaminated with asbestos and black mold. Ten years ago the plant, along with the village, was pounded by flooding. Though floral curtains still hang in some office windows, Chief MacFadden says the facility has been stripped of copper and other materials.

“Last time I was here, I didn’t believe these panels were gone. I think someone’s been in here,” says Chief MacFadden.

If you ask Mayor Avery what he wants to do with the old plant, his answer is simple. Tear it down.

“All of it,” he adds.

The village has wrestled with the property since it was shut down in 2009. Beech-Nut moved to a new site in the nearby Town of Florida. But while the state provided funding to help relocate the business, the old plant was left alone.

The current owner has not paid taxes on the property in years, and the village is hoping to foreclose.

Avery says because the plant is in a flood plain, it would make it difficult to reuse. Avery also has doubts about the neighboring warehouses.

“So the Beech-Nut management told us it would cost them at least a million to put a number of doors in for tractor trailers and loading docks to accommodate their needs, and it wasn’t worth it. That’s where the saying came from, when they told me the warehousing was the fourth horse in a three-horse race.”

With water pooling on the floors and wires hanging from the ceiling, it’s easy to get discouraged by the site’s appearance.

“It’s like a chicken that fell into a piranha pond.”

That’s Bill Roehr, Senior Planner with the Montgomery County Business Development Center. Roehr is not ruling out any possibilities.

“If we can get money to demolish it, if we can get money to rehab it, if we can get investors, literally, whatever the most pragmatic way is. If we don’t do this, the stakes are, I should say, the consequences are incredibly serious. Because this dominates the downtown, dominates the whole village.”

 Elizabeth Okeke-Von Batten, program director of the American Architecture Foundation, traveled from Washington to see the decrepit factory.

“There is so much potential in this structure, whether the village and the county decide to reuse parts of it or to try something completely different on the site,” said Okeke-Von Batten.

Canajoharie has been selected to take part in AAF’s Sustainable Cities Design Academy. As part of the program, the local leaders meet locally and will also head to Washington later this summer for a workshop with leaders from other cities, that they hope will give them the answers they need to transform the old plant.

Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort said the team knew from the beginning that it would take a “whole host of stakeholders” to find solutions for Canajoharie.

“We’re just continuing to move the ball down the field, bring on team members, bring on expertise, and hopefully bring on resources so we can get to a point within hopefully just a couple short years to see this site be turned from a symbol of our past to a promising symbol of our future,” said Ossenfort.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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