Bata Hotel checks out of Harford County

Historic housing for workers imploded for business complex

November 17, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

With a series of explosions, amid billows of dust, a piece of Harford County history came crashing to the ground yesterday.

The Bata Hotel -- once the home to hundreds of workers at the landmark Bata Shoe Co. plant -- was imploded to make room for a planned $63 million office park.

"I feel kind of sad," said retired Bata worker Jerry Valcik, 82, who married after his first few months in the hotel and moved to a small community of homes maintained on the site for Bata workers. "I brought my handkerchief."

Demolition of the 5 1/2 story building marks another chapter in the life of Bata in Belcamp, the company's home since 1934. At its height, the company employed as many as 3,400 workers to manufacture shoes such as the Bata Bullet sneaker.

Competition from abroad led the company to scale back its operations in the 1980s, leaving many of its buildings deserted.

In June, county officials announced that the proposed Water's Edge Corporate Campus, with office buildings, a 400-home community, two waterfront restaurants, a hotel and conference center, would be built on the Bata site.

The shoe company is relocating its 175 employees to a $10 million, 120,000-square-foot manufacturing facility to be built in Havre de Grace.

"There is, of course, nostalgia for the [hotel], but for those who embrace that nostalgia, I think each one of them is eager to see the progress that will come behind the implosion," said Harford County Executive James M. Harkins.

He said the implosion marked the beginning of the revitalization of the U.S. 40 corridor, which stretches from Joppatowne to Havre de Grace.

The Bata Shoe Co. buildings are considered architecturally significant because they are among the early examples in the United States of the Bauhaus school of design, which emphasized functionalism. Several years ago, community activists were rebuffed by the county in their request to block the plant's partial demolition.

Yesterday, more than a hundred people gathered to watch the implosion, which shut down sections of U.S. 40 and Route 543 shortly after 2 p.m. After a series of loud detonations, the building seemed to hang in midair before it tumbled inward, sending observers scrambling into a tent to avoid the swirling gray dust that for a moment turned the sunny day overcast.

Former resident Valcik had more than dust in his eyes as he watched the old hotel collapse. He lived in the hotel for several months after coming to Harford on Jan. 12, 1940, as a Bata production employee, one of the last people allowed out of German-occupied Czechoslovakia.

He fondly remembered living in the hotel and working at the plant, which at one point produced 20 million pairs of shoes a year.

"We used to have single people living here while they worked," Valcik said. "But like they say, progress has to go on."

In addition to the implosion, county officials broke ground nearby yesterday for the SURVICE Engineering Co., a tenant of the planned campus which will establish its headquarters there.

"This is going to be a big deal for Harford County economically," said Harford County Councilman Michael Geppi, whose mother, Barbara Smith, worked at Bata 15 years ago. "This used to be a bunch of abandoned buildings, and I think we are going to see a lot more businesses relocating here because of this new facility."

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