CANAJOHARIE - The white walls of Beech-Nut loom over downtown Canajoahrie, dominating the view from Palatine Bridge. Years ago, the factory churned out smoke and baby food, employing almost 350 area residents. Now the factory lies dormant, unused. The main thoroughfare through downtown Canajoharie has several storefronts closed, unused.
Canajoharie has been kicked in the teeth a few times over the last few years. In 2006, a major flood devastated the area. Then, in 2009, Beech-Nut, the baby food company that provided jobs to so many local people, announced it would close the factory and and build a new complex in the nearby town of Florida - all after a new multimillion-dollar water-treatment plant had been built for the community and for Beech-Nut.
Few have forgotten the significance Beech-Nut had to the community.
A somewhat rusty sign hangs outside the Beech-Nut site in downtown Canajoharie. The village’s economic health has been tenuous since the baby-food plant shut down. (The Leader-Herald/Arthur Cleveland)
Kathy Lamphere has lived in Canajoharie her whole life. Working at Tony's Pizzeria, she gets to see the old Beech-Nut building every day.
"When the shift changed, you knew about it," Lamphere said. "In recent years, you wouldn't even know when a shift changed, to be honest."
Beech-Nut's move was not the only blow dealt to the community.
John Peruzzi, owner of Peruzzi's Meat Market, opened his business in 1998. In the 14 years he has been open, Peruzzi has seen many businesses close, including the Ames department store close across the river.
"My weekend business dropped a lot after [Ames] left," Peruzzi said.
According to Canajoharie Mayor Francis Avery, the village still owes $3 million on the water plant, which was built with Beech-Nut's production needs in mind. Currently, residents pay around $6 for every thousand gallons of water used. A few years ago, residents were charged $9 per gallon to save up money for when Beech-Nut left.
"For the time being, we have been able to control it," Avery has said.
Avery hopes to begin selling water to the C.G. Roxane water-bottling company, which has been negotiating with the village for the last two years, in an attempt to stabilize the water rates and to pay off the debt. He is also offering to take wastewater from other local towns to process.
The village has been trying hard to bring back some of that old spark it had so long ago.
A recent wave of mostly grant-funded construction is finishing, giving the village new facades, sidewalks and road surfaces, effectively giving the town a new coat of paint. The infrastructure has been redone, with a new drainage system in parts of the village. The West Hill School building, after languishing for years, now has volunteers inside, rebuilding and renovating the damaged structure.
"The town is cleaned up, the bridge is beautiful to enter the town. It's looking good," Peruzzi said.
Many local people are hopeful about the future of the town.
"I think we bottomed out," Peruzzi said. "I think were gonna start going up now. Things will happen."
He said he's heard rumors about a retail business looking the former Ames site.
"If that happens, that will increase weekend business," he said.
Jim Sancho, owner of Settler's Block Antiques, has said that downtown has seen some improvement since he opened his store in 2002.
"There were a lot more vacant stores back then," Sancho said. "It was difficult in the beginning because there was so many things pending:?the bridge construction, the facade restoration, a lot of infrastructure issues."
"I think we have finally seen the backwards movement, and I think now we are going to see the forward movement," Peruzzi said.
Avery said the construction was necessary because the town had started to look run down. And Wagner Square's drainage system was ineffective, making the square flood often. The new drainage system now has an effective life span of at least 50 years.
However, the optimism isn't universal.
Lamphere said the community needs a big industrial concern to help bring it back.
"I think everyone here is hoping someone will go in there," she said, pointing a thumb toward the Beech-Nut factory. "Otherwise, what's going to become of it? It's like a house. The longer it sits there, the worse off it's going to be."
"I lived here my whole life. I'm not interested in going anywhere else," Lamphere said. "But what are the people going to do? If nothing comes in here, how many taxes can we pay? How much stuff can the people of this village support? We got a wonderful school system, we got a beautiful school, but how much and for how long can we support all this?"
Much of Lamphere's concern focuses on what the younger generation's future might be in Canajoharie.
"I have a son, and personally, why would I?want him to stay? Where is he gonna work? What kind of money is he going to make? What is he gonna do? Hang around here and make minimum wage? That's what they need to think about," Lamphere said. "They need something, somewhere to work."
The mayor has said Canajoharie has yet to feel the full effects of Beech-Nut's departure. With the factory standing unused and Pyramid Reality trying to sell it, Avery said, depending on how the building is sold, Canajoharie may suffer. If a company moves into the Beech-Nut facility as it currently stands, the village will still receive taxes for the property. However, if a developer were to tear it down and build an industrial park there, Avery said, the new owner might get a tax break, removing a source of revenue for the village.
"It's going to take a while for us to be strong again," Peruzzi said.
Arthur Cleveland can be reached by email at email@example.com.