Bata Shoe factory demolished for condos, had roots in WWII

5,300 tons of rubble is all that remains

Farewell: Hundreds watched as experts blew up a building that was once Harford's No. 1 employer

October 28, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Everybody loves a good demolition.

People pulled their kids out of school, offices shut down, police closed the roads and at least one company planned a party, all as part of a 13-second event yesterday on U.S. 40 in Belcamp: the demolition of the 65-year-old former Bata Shoe factory that was once Harford County's largest employer.

"Everybody would like to blow something up," said Kevin Klass, the project manager in charge of the show. His northern Baltimore County company, Controlled Demolition Inc., has blown up structures from the Kingdome stadium in Seattle to remains of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. "Everybody thinks it's neat, and it is," he said. "It's spectacular."

This particular explosion was also bittersweet. It signaled economic and business progress for the county - the land will be used to add 100,000 square feet of office space to Harford's classy Water's Edge business park - but also meant the official end of a county chapter.

"A new corporate town has replaced the old. The housing has been replaced by condos and waterfront townhomes, and the old factory will be replaced by a fancy new building," said Tom Sadowski, director of the county's Office of Economic Development. "It's the end of one era and the beginning of another."

The Bata factory opened its doors in the late 1930s, becoming a haven for many Czechoslovakians fleeing Nazi invaders. Founder Thomas Bata had brought the shoe business to the United States, to Belcamp, for just that reason, and encouraged others from his homeland to follow.

"I spent 42 years of my life over there," said 86-year-old Jerry Valcik, motioning toward the shell of a building about to be blown up. "In one way, it is sad, you know?"

In 1940, when he was 22, Valcik left Czechoslovakia to work at Bata, eventually becoming a production manager. He retired in 1982. In its heyday, the company employed 3,400 people and made 20 million pairs of shoes each year - canvas, high-top sneakers called "Bata Bullets" in the 1960s and latex military boots in the 1970s and 1980s.

Bata had always been more than a business, though. It evolved into a company town responsible for much of the county's early business success. The Bata complex included not only a Bauhaus-inspired factory headquarters, but also a hotel (with movie theater) and company housing, which Valcik lived in for 12 years.

But as competition grew, technology improved and much manufacturing moved back overseas, Bata's work force dwindled. By 1999, when the business relocated several miles northeast to Havre de Grace, fewer than 200 people held jobs there. Two years later, the business was sold to Ramer Equities and renamed Onguard Industries LLC.

The hotel was torn down five years ago, and the worker houses have been replaced with high-priced condos and townhouses. The 5 1/2 -story factory was the last Bata vestige, and it too was about to disappear.

Tyler and Connor Boone were beside themselves yesterday over its impending destruction.

The brothers, 10 and 7, respectively, couldn't speak about the event before it happened. They were too excited. Their dad, Mike Boone, a carpenter with Clark Turner Cos., had pulled the boys out of Roye Williams Elementary School in Havre de Grace early. He wrote on their early dismissal slip that they "were going to watch a building blow up."

"Seeing [a demolition] on TV is one thing, and being there is another. To feel the vibration, hear the pop pops, see the building come down and the dust roll by. It's a thrilling event," said Clark Turner, whose Bel Air company will redevelop the Bata property.

Water's Edge, which Clark Turner Cos. is developing in conjunction with Manekin LLC of Columbia, is a $141 million project that offers 600,000 square feet of prime, waterfront space. It is a pivotal piece of Harford County Executive James M. Harkins' 6-year-old plan to revitalize and revamp the U.S. 40 corridor, hoping to shake off its manufacturing past in favor of attracting more white-collar employment.

Information security company SafeNet Inc. moved its headquarters from White Marsh to Water's Edge in December for three reasons, said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Anthony A. Caputo: the ability to grow, a good environment for employees and an affordable price.

His employees had a birds' eye view of the demolition from their office windows yesterday. Earlier in the week, those on the coveted waterside of the building started offering bribes to people whose windows faced inland toward the Bata structure, sending flowers and cookies in exchange for a prime spot.

As the 3 p.m. detonation deadline drew near, cars lined up on the Route 543 overpass just above U.S. 40 to watch. Those on Water's Edge campus - mostly invited guests, employees and their families, and local big wigs - gathered behind yellow tape, turned on video cameras and waited.

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