It’s a done deal for dairy
Elias family purchases dilapidated Art Deco building, plans are undetermined
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.”
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.