Chocolate Morsel of Hope Lives On In Fulton
Originally published: September 19, 2003
by Sean Kirst, Post-Standard Columnist
Mike Treadwell began his Wednesday with an early morning talk at the Oswego State Education Center. He was asked about the fragile attempts at reviving chocolate production in Fulton. Treadwell was blunt. The deal was all but dead. Treadwell said it would “take a miracle” to make chocolate again in the closed-down Nestle plant.
Treadwell serves as the executive director of Operation Oswego County, a public development agency. After his talk, he got into his car and drove toward the chocolate works. Nestle was about to auction off millions of dollars worth of chocolate- making equipment, and auction that Treadwell, with direct support from U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hilary Rodham Clinton, had fruitlessly attempted to get Nestle to postpone.
As Treadwell drove, his cell phone beeped. It was the beginning, just maybe, of the miracle. The call was from Lion Capital, a California investment group that remains interested in using the Nestle plant for bulk chocolate production. Those investors had spent months putting together a proposal for buying both the plant and the equipment. Tuesday, with almost no time left before the auction, Nestle rejected the offer, point-blank. If they wanted the equipment, the investors were told, they’d better show up at the auction and buy it.
“They forced the investors, if they still had an interest in using the equipment and the available work force, to go to the auction with everyone else,” Treadwell said. “It seemed an awful lot like kicking Fulton while it’s down. Bad enough to close the oldest chocolate plant in North America. But then to refuse to provide any inside track at all for investors with a dream of reopening the place….”
Tuesday night, discouraged officials from Lion Capital gave Treadwell the impression they were about to walk away.
Wednesday morning, on the phone, they said they were walking back.
They wanted to try. They would see if they could buy the equipment they needed. Treadwell got to the auction and learned that Richard Duffy, another proven developer with a plan to make low-carbohydrate chocolate diet bars in Fulton, was willing to do the same thing.
A third group with a dream of reopening the plant, a group led by Fulton native Rick Kinney, would sit the auction out. But if the right equipment remained afterward, Kinney told Treadwell, he might be able to go after it then.
That equipment, it seems, does remain available, due in no small part to an unexpected ally. Jim Newman, president of Loeb Equipment in Chicago, was brought in to help at the sale by Steve Mattes of Biditup!, the corporate auctioneer, because Newman’s specialized knowledge in food processing equipment.
Newman describes himself as “an undertaker.” Far too often, his job is selling off the last scraps of machinery from factories that have been shut down. This time, Newman said, “It’s nice to be able to help bring one back to life.”
He did everything he could to make things easier, Treadwell said. Much of the equipment was purchased by out-of-town brokers, who bought it simply to resell for profit. Newman packaged the equipment in a way that will make it simpler for any Fulton investors to buy back what they need. He also went out of his way, Treadwell said, to help Duffy to submit his bids on time.
As it sits right now, Duffy- assuming he can put together his financing and a business plan – will use the back end of the plant for producing his low-carb chocolate. He earned that right by putting together a bid faster than the Lion Group, and by getting it in before Wednesday’s 5 p.m. deadline.
Kinney’s group and the investors from Lion still want to resume bulk chocolate production in a different section of the plant, Treadwell said. But they have only a few days to make an offer on the equipment Treadwell said, before the new owners take it out of Fulton.
“It all depends on their assessment,” Treadwell said. “If (Kinney or the other investors) find big gaps and big holes (in the necessary equipment), they could easily walk away. But they’re still very interested, and that interest is partially driven by where the plant is (and) the idea that they could get it operating in a quick and timely fashion, with a skilled work force sitting and waiting near the door.
In other words, they see potential in the very things that caused Nestle to leave.
So the plant revival that seemed dead Tuesday night is still alive. The would-be investors have kept their interest despite an auction that made everything immensely difficult. It is good news, but Treadwell also knows it is only halfway to a miracle.
The miracle will be when you smell chocolate in the air.