Pa. town begins to feel a sense of a legacy lost

Shock: Since Hershey Foods announced it was considering selling the business, a community synonymous with chocolate has been forced to deal with tough issues.

August 04, 2002|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

HERSHEY, Pa. - Patrick Leonard has lived for more than 30 years in this town where the sweet smell of chocolate hangs in the air.

The town, he said, has everything from good schools to a Christmas Candylane celebration at the nearby amusement park to a local company, Hershey Foods Corp., that lets factory workers who are on the firefighting squad leave work during the day if a fire breaks out in town.

"That kind of support, letting our people leave at a moment's notice, you can't measure the value in that kind of commitment from corporate sponsorship," said Leonard, who works for an insurance company and is chief of the Hershey Volunteer Fire Company.

This is a company town if ever there was one. The streets have names such as Chocolate and Cocoa. At lunchtime, dozens of workers with Hershey badges fill the pizza parlor and park. The bank gives out Hershey's Kisses to customers.

The street lamps are kiss-shaped, and a candy character walks the halls of the almond-colored Hotel Hershey. At Hersheypark, the amusement park, height requirements to go on rides are measured not in inches but by whether a child is as tall as a sign for a Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bar or one for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

So when Hershey Foods Corp. announced that - at the request of the Milton Hershey School Trust, which controls 77 percent of the voting power of the company's stock - it was considering selling the 108-year-old business, it shocked the community. Many residents worry that if a new company comes in it could affect jobs, the cultural atmosphere and the Milton S. Hershey legacy on which this town was built.

"We're upset about it because that's part of what gives Hershey its charm," longtime resident Rebecca Boehmer said at Harry Potter's Birthday Bash at the library. "Hershey's chocolate is an all-American icon, and we like being an all-American sweet town."

Adults who have lived here all their lives describe Hershey as a safe, sweet place to grow up. The kind of town where everyone knew each other, and many families worked at the Hershey factory or the local hospital.

Hershey is in the Township of Derry, population 20,200, where there was one homicide last year and none so far this year. About 6,000 workers fill Hershey Foods' offices and factory in the township.

Dr. Ed Kase, 38, remembers a childhood of walking to school or to the ballpark in Hershey and playing hockey at the ice rink. "It was always kind of a unique setting," he said.

Peter Shearer, 43, who has lived in Hershey his whole life and is now a librarian here, recalls touring the factory in elementary school and the smell of candy in the air.

But many thoughts are quickly turning from sweet to sour. "I think it's a slap in the face that they're trying to sell it," Shearer said.

Pam Pierce-Ditzler, 50, is a lifelong resident of Hershey, which is unincorporated. She said it's a shame that the company might be sold. "A big company isn't going to care about a small-town atmosphere," she said on her way into the post office.

Even the teen-agers are chiming in.

"Hersheypark and Hershey, it's kind of like a tradition. It's not something you can buy and sell," said Emily Thompson, 16, who works at the face-painting booth at Hersheypark.

Sarah Leib, 15, who works as a Hershey's Chocolate Bar or a Kit Kat character in the park, said she doesn't like the idea of the company being sold to a business such as Nestle SA. "I don't want to be an Oompa-Loompa next year," she said. "Doesn't Nestle make the Willy Wonka stuff?"

It has been widely reported that Nestle, Kraft Foods, Cadbury Schweppes and William Wrigley Jr. Co. might try to buy Hershey Foods. Hersheypark and Hotel Hershey are owned by Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Co. - not Hershey Foods.

Hershey Foods declined to comment for this article.

But some of the adults in town have grave concerns about what could happen to their neighborhood. They are worried about their jobs, the community support that comes from the company and the economic devastation that could follow if Hershey is sold.

Scott Foust, who grew up in Hershey, has worked at the factory for 24 years. "Who knows if I'll retire from there now if another company takes over," Foust said.

"How do we know if and when whoever purchases it is going to keep it like it is?" asked Henry Weikel, 77, a retired Hershey factory worker who came to Hershey in 1946. "Would Nestle keep it like it is? Would they change the name? Would they go and lay off our people and hire somebody else?"

Skip Memmi, chairman of the Board of Supervisors for the Township of Derry, said that while the board has not taken an official position yet, his greatest concern is the economic impact a sale of Hershey Foods could have.

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