It’s a done deal for dairy

Elias fam­ily pur­chases di­lap­i­dated Art Deco build­ing, plans are un­de­ter­mined

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - BY SARAH M. WO­J­CIK

The Elias fam­ily fi­nal­ized a deal to pur­chase the long-va­cant Le­high Val­ley Dairy on Fri­day, a re­de­vel­op­ment ef­fort that White­hall Town­ship of­fi­cials be­lieve could kick-start an eco­nomic re­vival in the south­ern cor­ri­dor of the town­ship.

Joseph Elias, and his son Gus, best known their re­gional gro­cery mar­kets, haven’t de­ter­mined what they will put on the site. The pair stood out­side the de­cay­ing Art Deco build­ing Fri­day af­ter­noon to an­nounce their plans.

LVD Realty Inc., which has owned the prop­erty at 1026 MacArthur Road, since 1996, set­tled the $1.35 mil­lion sale with the Elias fam­ily Fri­day af­ter­noon, hours be­fore the an­nounce­ment. Aban­doned for 30 years, the 10-acre prop­erty has be­come an eye­sore and a greatly un­der­used tract of land along one of the busiest eco­nomic cor­ri­dors in the Le­high Val­ley.

Mayor Michael Harakal Jr. said the dairy has long been a talk­ing point in the town­ship, but in­ter­est surged af­ter the an­nounce­ment in March that an agree­ment of sale was in place.

“The dairy has been the sin­gle most sig­nif­i­cant thing in the minds of peo­ple who want to talk to me,” the mayor said Fri­day. “They al­ways want to know what is be­ing done with the dairy.”

Gus Elias con­firmed that the de­vel­op­ment would be the big

gest busi­ness ven­ture the fam­ily has un­der­taken, but said they were not in­tim­i­dated by the prospect. The Le­high Val­ley is home, he said, and the in­vest­ment is worth­while.

“We are not afraid of it,” Gus Elias said. “We know we can do this.”

On Sept. 5, Elias Prop­erty Group LLC pur­chased a 4.6-are par­cel at 845 Sum­ner Ave., just be­hind the dairy prop­erty. The land sold for $225,000 and Elias Prop­erty Group se­cured a $180,000 mort­gage that same day.

The fam­ily owns the Elias Mar­ket at 101 Til­gh­man St. in Al­len­town, the Azar Mar­ket at 3131 Lin­den St. in Beth­le­hem. The Elias Bake Shoppe, 751 Union St. in Al­len­town, shut­tered last fall.

Gus Elias said the fam­ily was look­ing to ex­pand their reach in the Le­high Val­ley when Glenn Fritts, as­so­ciate bro­ker for Remax Com­mer­cial, pointed them to­ward the dairy. Fritts is part of the team look­ing to sell the prop­erty and said that over the years, he’s had mul­ti­ple buy­ers for the site. But any is­sues with de­vel­op­ment, such as re­me­di­a­tion or zon­ing ap­provals, have scared off big de­vel­op­ers who of­ten rid­dle a con­tract with con­tin­gen­cies, ac­cord­ing to Fritts.

Elias Prop­erty Group purDairies, chased the dairy in a mat­ter of months and put no con­tin­gen­cies in the con­tract — proof, Fritts said, of their com­mit­ment to the site.

Fritts said the help from Harakal and White­hall of­fi­cials, as well as state Rep. Jeanne McNeill’s of­fice, made the process smooth and fast.

“You can’t get a project like this done with­out that kind of co­op­er­a­tion,” he said. “They bent over back­wards for us.”

Com­mis­sioner Thomas Sloanaker said he’d seen so many close calls with the Le­high Val­ley Dairy that he re­mained skep­ti­cal un­til the end.

“We’ve just heard it all be­fore. I wanted to be­lieve,” Sloanaker said. “And then to­day, when I got that call that it went through, that made it real.”

The four-story, 350,000square foot build­ing is in ter­ri­ble shape and would likely have to be de­mol­ished. Once that hap­pens, Gus Elias said the fam­ily will have a clean slate to work with. Pro­fes­sion­als are be­ing hired to as­sess the prop­erty and de­ter­mine its best uses, he said.

“We are still open to any­thing,” Elias said. “We have to see all of our op­tions.”

On the town­ship’s south­ern boundary with Al­len­town, the build­ing was once a jewel, hav­ing been con­verted from a silk mill to a dairy in 1934. It fea­tured a re­tail dairy bar and au­di­to­rium, which was of­ten used to host White­hall High School grad­u­a­tions.

In Jan­uary 1989, Le­high Val­ley as it was then known, laid off all but 50 of the 270 em­ploy­ees at the White­hall plant, be­fore aban­don­ing the build­ing later that year.

Harakal said con­ver­sa­tions have al­ready be­gun with PennDOT on ways to im­prove traf­fic in that part of White­hall.

“There’s a com­mit­ment to the longevity of the re­tail cen­ter there,” Harakal said. “We want to make sure this cor­ri­dor re­mains healthy for a long time.”

The mayor com­pared the Elias fam­ily’s progress to the quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can dream.

Joseph Elias ar­rived in Amer­ica from Le­banon in 1979 at the age of 18. Two months later, he mar­ried his wife and they started their fam­ily.

“I didn’t even have a dol­lar to my name,” the pa­tri­arch said Fri­day, re­call­ing a time when he sold pota­toes door-to-door in Al­len­town. In 1984, he opened his first store in the city. Elias re­mem­bers pass­ing the cor­ner where his store now stands on Til­gh­man Street, a gas sta­tion there at the time, and mus­ing about ac­quir­ing such a choice lo­ca­tion.

“And we did that. And now?” he glanced up at the dairy build­ing tow­er­ing above him. “We’ve come a long way.”

APRIL GAMIZ/THE MORN­ING CALL

Lo­cal busi­ness owner Joseph Elias speaks about his “Amer­i­can Dream” dur­ing a news con­fer­ence where it was an­nounced that Le­high Val­ley Dairy in White­hall has been sold to the Elias fam­ily.

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