The old Beech-Nut campus in Canajoharie entered its long-awaited next chapter Tuesday, as the first truckloads of demolition debris were removed.
Cleanup of the mess left by a previous owner is expected to be complete later this month, and Montgomery County — the site’s new owner — is also getting ready to stabilize the administration building along Church Street by preventing further rainwater intrusion.
Planning is underway for the major work to be done: tearing down more than a dozen crumbling warehouses and buildings on the east side of the campus while revitalizing the office space on the west side for reuse. When that work happens depends on when a grant is secured — and how much it is worth.
“It’s so good to see actual movement on the site,” said County Executive Matthew Ossenfort. “We’ve been working on this awhile.”
“It’s not the the beginning of the end, it’s the end of the beginning,” said village Mayor Francis Avery, recalling Winston Churchill’s famous assessment of an early victory in World War II — a lot of time and effort will need to be expended to save and revitalize the hulking eyesore in the heart of the village’s downtown.
“We will see it through; we understand we have only one chance to make it successful,” Avery said.
Beech-Nut operated its baby food plant in Canajoharie for nearly a century, but it built a modern replacement in the town of Florida several years ago. It ended operations in Canajoharie in 2011 and later sold the sprawling campus to an Ohio developer for $200,000 — less than 25 cents per square foot. That developer and a subsequent owner partially demolished the eastern end of the site and removed valuable scrap material. They stopped paying taxes and departed, leaving unsightly, asbestos-contaminated debris behind.
The county seized the property for non-payment of taxes last summer.
The opportunity now is to launch a fresh start, but a lot of work must be done first. Several of the warehouses are unstable and condemned — marked for demolition. The headquarters and some of the surrounding buildings are rock-solid but need a lot of work after years of roof leaks and freeze-thaw cycles.
Worn office furniture is sprinkled here and there, along with a few bits of old equipment apparently overlooked or intentionally left behind when Beech-Nut moved out.
The sprawling complex was built in stages, and it’s like a maze in places: One can walk and walk and walk, but not get very far without encountering stairs or doors or turns in the corridors. It’s a style of design that has long since been discarded in favor of open spaces and efficient partitioning.
In many of the rooms, the tang of mold hangs in the air, and there are green and black spores on the walls. In a carpeted office, a lush lawn of moss and weeds appears to have stopped growing in the wintry cold, though it promises fresh growth in the springtime.
Ken Rose, CEO of the Montgomery County Business Development Center, said cleaning up the mold and water damage is just part of the work that needs to be done there, but it’s important to stop the water trickling in before it does further damage. It has percolated through the floors and formed a sheet of ice 3 inches thick on the basement floor.
Rose led a group of engineers on a walk-through Wednesday morning, seeking fresh input on the structural integrity of the buildings that remain.
The verdict so far is that the headquarters on Church Street is sound: It’s made of reinforced concrete and won’t rot away.
“Obviously, it’s a historically significant building,” Rose said. “So we want to do whatever we can to preserve that.”
Rose credited the village with keeping the site secure and protected from vandalism and looting.
“We do have a full-time police force, and they do patrol,” Mayor Avery said. “Things are in bad enough shape now without making it worse.”
The first big hurdle to clear is money. A $500,000 Restore NY grant awarded by the state in 2017 was appreciated but was only a fraction of the funding needed. Ossenfort said the county should have an answer in a month or two on the $5 million Restore NY grant it is seeking. That would be enough to set the wheels in motion and accomplish a lot of what needs to be done. An engineering report prepared to support the Restore NY grant application put an estimated price tag on several major components of the project:
- Saving six key buildings on the site would run $2.27 million, the bulk of it for mold and asbestos removal in the administration building.
- Removing 13 buildings on the west side of the Canajoharie Creek would run $1.71 million.
- Removing 12 buildings on the east side of the creek would run $1.53 million.
- Removing three of the four bridges over the creek would run $90,000; saving the fourth would cost around $40,000.
The second hurdle is likely to be almost as difficult as securing the money and is perhaps more important to clear: Finding a viable use for the property and a partner or developer with the ability to make it happen.
“We’re obviously going to vet any type of project and do our due diligence before any decision is made,” Rose said. The county will be looking for a sound business plan and the financial strength to follow through on it.
“There’s a lot of ideas being floated right now,” he added, including indoor recreation, a hotel, eateries and government offices.
Avery said he’s heard a desire from his constituents for an upscale hotel and a commercial enterprise of some sort, but a lot of ideas might work, if executed correctly.
“Nothing’s off the table, but we fully intend to vet everything very carefully,” he said.
Ossenfort said the site’s location boosts its viability for redevelopment.
“The amazing thing is how people have just gravitated toward this project,” he said. “Everyone understands the magnitude of the challenges, but people also see the opportunity.
“I believe this site is attractive because of the proximity to the Thruway, the abundant availability of water and sewer.”
(It sits right at Exit 29, and the village’s water/sewer infrastructure provide far more capacity than would be typical in a quiet upstate town because the system was built to serve Beech-Nut.)
The campus sits beside the Mohawk River and astraddle the Canajoharie Creek; it has been flooded in the past. Rose said the reuse plan will take that into account.
Beyond the challenges of finding money and developing a plan, the project must also reflect the wants and needs of the village, which lost its biggest taxpayer and employer when Beech-Nut moved to higher ground.
The county has tried to involve village residents in the conversation, getting input on what should go on the old factory site.
Ossenfort said the goal also is to retain the county’s identity as a rural area with small communities and a good quality of life — it wouldn’t be able to attract a computer chip factory to Canajoharie, and wouldn’t try.
“Are we ever going to be Saratoga County? Are we ever going to be Schenectady County? No. But we don’t want to be.”
Montgomery County has had its economic successes, including the Hill & Markes and the Dollar General distribution facilities near Thruway Exit 27, and of course retaining Beech-Nut when it was being courted by developers in other states.
But Montgomery County also has a declining population, lower per-capita income and higher unemployment than the more populous counties in the heart of the Capital Region. The hulking former Beech-Nut complex is among the most visible signs of upstate’s economic problems, and for that reason Ossenfort believes state leaders will be willing to aid in its overhaul and rebirth.
“I am optimistic,” he said. “We have no other choice but to fight this fight.”
One fight the county has given up is going after the developers who stripped the old Beech-Nut plant of everything of value that could easily be removed before walking away from the mess. Nor is the county further pursuing Beech-Nut itself to cover the cost of asbestos removal, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did.
“We’ve removed ourselves from that part of it,” Rose said.