By James M. Odato
For years, economic development professionals have wrung their hands over the abandoned Oval Wood Dish factory in Tupper Lake as local leaders attempted to rebrand the village as a tourist and recreation destination.
The hulking factory in the middle of the village has stymied revitalization efforts since it closed years ago.
That may change because a Syracuse-based development group with a record of restoring and repurposing architectural relics plans a $30 million project for 92 apartments plus commercial space. The development would fill about 130,000 square feet of the former disposable dish maker that once employed hundreds of Tupper Lake residents.
With the $1 million purchase of the eight buildings and 25 acres of the legendary factory complex, a team lead by Syracuse-based Lahinch Group has bolstered dreams of a turnaround for the logging town.
“That’s been a blight on the community,” Mayor Paul Maroun said of the empty factory, known as OWD.
If Lahinch’s results with OWD are similar to its work with other vintage buildings in central New York, then Maroun and his constituents will be ecstatic. Already, local leaders are bursting with optimism and Maroun expects a local brewery to open a bottling operation in the commercial space planned at the dish factory.
Joseph Gehm, the leader of Lahinch, is confident the site will add to his collection of landmarks resuscitated with help from preservation subsidies. He worked with local leaders to get the OWD listed as a state and national historic preservation site.
He expects the factory-turned-apartment building will become a catalyst for greater development in the region.
Jeremy Evans, chief executive officer of the Franklin County Economic Development Corp., is counting on that. He has been trying to recruit a developer for the OWD for years.
“Tupper Lake has so many good things going on you can’t help but see the positive outlook,” Evans said. “But, sure, any time you have an underperforming property in a neighborhood or community, it makes all the progress and continued progress difficult. And to have a property that prominent on the main corridor in the town, that can weigh on the progress. This is a big piece of Tupper Lake’s transformation.”
Lahinch Group purchased the site with help from a $350,000 loan from the Economic Development Corp., and Gehm intends to raise financing with historic preservation tax credits. Up to 20% of eligible costs can be turned into credits that a developer can sell to investors for up-front money.
Gehm has done this already with his projects at the Oak Knitting Mill and the C.G. Meaker Co. Warehouse in Syracuse and the Utica Steam Cotton Mill in Utica. His partners in the OWD project, Hueber Breuer Construction and Housing Visions, also have substantial experience revamping old buildings. Gehm said the restoration in Tupper Lake should lead to greater property taxes for local governments.
Gehm toured the building on April 21 with state Sen. Dan Stec, Maroun and Village Trustee Ronald LaScala. Within the vast factory floors, they trod through pigeon droppings and dirt. Gehm said the facility, with a solid structure, is in better shape than some of the previous buildings Lahinch developed.
The village factory, opened in 1918, was a significant wood-processing plant, and the operators owned 100,000 acres of Adirondack timberland to provide the raw materials for tableware and eating utensils made there. In the 1960s, it became a plastics company, making Lady Dianne brand spoons and forks. It closed 13 years ago.
According to a 2003 article in Adirondack Life available at the nearby Goff-Nelson Memorial Library, the business moved from Ohio to Michigan and to the Adirondacks. It employed 500 people and spurred a housing boom in Tupper Lake. The plant’s owners donated land for the Tupper Lake country club and golf course and a ski hill, the magazine article noted.
Community business leaders are now trying to upgrade that golf course and the associated cross-country skiing center while reopening the Big Tupper downhill facility and expanding snowmobile and bike trails. They view the apartment project at OWD as a big asset toward their objectives.
“It would bring in more consumers of outdoor recreation,” said Mark Moeller, a local banker involved in business group. “We think it would enhance every one of our five Phase I projects.”
Gehm said besides purchasing the factory and planning $30 million in improvements to it, his partnership has purchased an option to buy a few acres behind the site that was once a car salvage yard. The group plans to buy that former Fletcher & Son Recycling & Energy property and turn it a park-like area that would link the OWD site to the rail trail being built by the state for biking, hiking and snowmobiling between Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.
He said the giant smokestack for OWD is on that property, and he wants to keep it as a memorial to Tupper Lake’s industrial past.
Demand for the apartments is clear, he said. Market studies indicate that both the high-end and less-expensive rentals planned are needed.
Evans, of the Economic Development Corp., said a series of studies throughout the Tri-Lakes area have concluded that the region is short of housing.
Trustee LaScala, who owns 10 apartment units in Tupper Lake, said his rentals get filled hours after he posts ads. The region’s biggest employer is the Sunmount Development Center, with 800 workers, followed by the school district with 200 employees, according to village data.
Sen. Stec said he’s been told that housing is a big challenge for hiring at Sunmount, and that some workers are commuting 60 to 90 minutes.
LaScala said one of his priorities as an elected official has been to get the OWD occupied again, and that is now heading in the right direction. He said he is unsure how to grade progress on his other economic development goal, to see the return of downhill skiing at Big Tupper.
The county is attempting to foreclose on the mountain to allow it to be auctioned and free it from a development partnership that has been unable to build a $500 million resort on 6,400 acres, some of which was once OWD property.
The foreclosure is on hold because lienholders have informed the county that they were not appropriately notified of the county’s intentions, said Maroun. He called it a “delaying tactic.”