College To Get Esskay Plant

October 13, 1994|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,Sun Staff Writer

Esskay Quality Meat Co.'s parent has agreed to donate its primary local manufacturing plant to a nonprofit affiliate of the Essex Community College, nearly two years after the discovery of structural problems forced the closing of the East Baltimore Street facility.

Under a tentative plan being negotiated between the Essex Community College Foundation, Smithfield Foods Inc. and city economic development officials, Essex would assume control of the 13.6-acre property early next year.

Although the foundation has not determined the ultimate use for the former meatpacking operation, it is considering redeveloping the site as either housing for the elderly, townhouses or light manufacturing.

"There's still a lot of planning left to do, and we want to make sure it's feasible to accept the property as a charitable gift," said Anthony J. Mierzwicki, the foundation's president.

The donation also is contingent on the outcome of environmental and engineering studies, which the group expects to receive in December, Mr. Mierzwicki told the college's board earlier this month.

If the foundation's efforts are successful, the former Esskay plant would serve as one of the few examples of industrial redevelopment in a city that is struggling to cope with the shift away from its traditional manufacturing base to a more service-oriented economy.

Smithfield purchased Esskay for $1.8 million in 1986, and like many older manufacturing sites that previously employed hundreds and even thousands of blue-collar workers, the former plant today is a derelict collection of buildings surrounded by a fence.

"The company itself can't reopen the plant, so if Essex wants to redevelop it, we think it would be a great project for the city," said Aaron Trub, a Smithfield vice president.

Smithfield Foods Inc. shuttered the 3800 E. Baltimore St. facility in December 1992, citing structural deficiencies discovered during an engineering evaluation of the 73-year-old plant. The company eliminated 300 remaining jobs in the process. Esskay accounted for roughly $45 million of Smithfield's $1.07 billion in sales in its last year of operation here.

After the evaluation, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke proposed purchasing the Esskay site, in return for a pledge by the company to construct a new plant valued at $15 million. Smithfield rejected the offer, however, claiming the poor economy and expansion of other plants prohibited new development.

In exchange for the donation, Smithfield would receive a tax write-off.

"We're taking something that's dead and trying to bring it back to life," said Robert Santoni Sr., a member of the foundation's board and president of the supermarket chain Santoni's Inc., who conceived obtaining the property for the foundation's benefit. "This could be the start of something big. How many other buildings are in this situation?"

Santoni's operates one of its three area supermarkets in the vicinity of the vacant plant.

But city officials reacted coolly to the possibility of residential redevelopment -- despite the fact that an elderly housing project could potentially create hundreds of jobs -- by noting that highway ramp construction off Interstate 895 and the area's abundant labor pool make it a key industrial location.

"Our job is to create opportunities for new job creation," said Robert Hannon, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public development agency. "Certainly manufacturing is our strongest preference. But we're cooperating with them by providing information."

Mr. Mierzwicki added that costs to demolish or renovate the site have not been determined, and an appraisal hasn't been commissioned.

Any proceeds generated from redevelopment of the Esskay site would be channeled into the foundation, which was chartered in 1981 to provide financial assistance to the school, said Dr. Andrew McDonald, the foundation's executive director.

In 1993, the organization raised nearly $400,000 for scholarships, equipment and faculty training. Its total asset and cash value at year-end was $1.1 million.

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