Five Years After Plant Closed, Property Still In Flux

BERLIN – Five years ago this week, the Tyson chicken processing plant on the outskirts of town closed its doors forever, creating an opportunity to replace the old factory with something more compatible to ever-changing 21st Century Berlin, but a variety of factors have conspired to keep the site a vacant and daily reminder of a different era.

In 2003, Tyson Foods abruptly and without warning announced it was closing its Berlin processing facility as part of a larger “plant rationalization” effort, eliminating roughly 650 jobs from Worcester County’s largest private employer and sending shockwaves through the local agricultural community.

Most of the 650 displaced workers were retrained for other jobs within the company or were hired by other poultry outfits in the area, just as many of the local growers who supplied chickens to the plant found other companies to do business with, minimizing the impact of what was first deemed a devastating blow to the local economy.

Five years later, the plant still stands where it did for decades, serving as a constant reminder of the difficulties of change, despite the collective will to change. Not long after Tyson closed the plant, Berlin resident and developer Troy Purnell and his new company Berlin Properties North (BPN) purchased the property and drew up plans for a vast mixed-use residential and commercial project called “Purnell Crossing” with as many as 265 homes including single-family homes, townhouses, apartments and even some assisted living residences. Also included in the plan is about 100,000 square feet designated for commercial shops, galleries, offices and other uses compatible with Berlin.

Included in the design was a plan to convert the plant’s vast wastewater treatment facility to residential use, with Purnell and BPN using just a fraction of the capacity for its mixed-use project. The rest would be turned over to Berlin to help the town with its burgeoning sewer capacity problem. While the plan had seemed rational and logical on the surface, complex regulatory issues involving the town, the county, the state and the private sector have prevented it from coming to fruition.

Today, the plant stands empty, and while it would be fair to characterize it as an eyesore, the vacant factory serves as a constant reminder of the huge gap between common sense and bureaucracy.

Berlin is attempting to expand its sewer capacity to accommodate the existing vacant lots within town limits and new development projects already in the planning pipeline. The initial plan was to increase the town’s existing sewer capacity from 600,000 gallons per day to a million gallons per day, but the new target number reached as sort of a compromise between the town, the county and the state is closer to 750,000 gallons per day.

However, the proposed 750,000 figure will not likely accommodate what is already on the books for Berlin, much less any new projects, including Purnell Crossing. BPN has attempted to have the old plant property annexed into town limits to expedite the process, but while town officials agree the mixed-use project is far better than what the site is today, there has been an unwillingness to annex the property without any guarantee of having the sewer capacity to serve it.

In a sense, everything is at a standstill until the sewer capacity and annexation issues can be resolved, but with the process moving forward at a snail’s pace with no real end in site, Purnell is now considering moving forward with an industrial-use project for the site. The property is in the county and is zoned for industrial use, which could force Purnell’s hand in a different direction, albeit a reluctant one.

“My intention from the beginning has been to do this really nice mixed-use project with some residential and some light commercial and that has not changed,” he said. “But the fact is, the property is in the county and is currently zoned for industrial. If something doesn’t budge soon, I’ll have to consider the alternative.”

Should BPN decide to veer in that direction, Purnell said this week he has a Plan B in place, although he wouldn’t reveal his intention. He did, however, make a last ditch plea to the powers that be to allow him to do his original plan.

“It’s a measure of last resort, but I do have a plan all drawn up if I have to go that route,” he said. “It’s not what I want to do, but I might be forced to do it. Please let me tear down that chicken plant and build something nice there.”

Town officials are well aware of the alternative if Purnell Crossing can’t be accommodated. Mayor Tom Cardinale said this week he holds out hope the regulatory process can be worked through.

“My hopes are still to get rid of that ugly chicken plant and do something positive with it,” he said. “The plan Troy has is a good design and would be a nice addition to the entrance to town.”

County officials recently rejected the town’s effort to create a second wastewater treatment plant utilizing the old Tyson facility, instead forcing Berlin to move on the path of expanding its existing facility. The county also directed Berlin to move away from discharging effluent into the creeks and streams that find their way to the coastal bays within five years by expanding their spray irrigation capacity and re-rating its plant to the 750,000 gpd figure.

Cardinale said achieving the goal of eliminating discharge and expanding spray irrigation is onerous enough without even considering annexing the old Tyson plant to accommodate more development.

“The county told us to get out of that stream in five years,” he said. “Well, that’s an awfully big responsibility. It’s like everybody is telling us what to do but not how to pay for it. It’s an unfunded mandate. It’s like the county saying to Berlin ‘this is how you’re going to do it little boy.’”

Council President Gee Williams agreed Berlin’s hands are tied somewhat in the process. Williams said he understands Purnell’s frustration, but urged the developer to remain patient.

“There is great frustration with this process on all sides,” he said. “Even when you know what you want to do, you can’t always get it done. Sometimes you end up with the least authority and the greatest amount of responsibility.”

Purnell said the town has the ability to act on his proposals and voiced some frustration with the process. He also raised concerns about the proposed 750,000 figure. He is already on the waiting list for sewer capacity for another project within town limits as are other developers.

“The town has an annexation agreement and a water and sewer agreement in front of them and they’re sitting on it,” he said. “I know it’s complicated, but I need to know how I fit in. The 750,000 gallons of capacity they’re talking about now doesn’t even give them enough to do what’s already committed, much less all the in-fill for what is in the town already.”

Cardinale said it would not be practical for either side to enter into an annexation agreement until the sewer capacity issues are resolved. He said the numbers might bare it out in the future, but for the moment, it doesn’t seem practical.

“The sooner we get our act together and get some numbers, the more likely it will be to get something done there,” he said. “Until we get some firm numbers, I don’t think there’s a will to annex it into town.”

Williams, however, said the will to create a nice mixed-use project at the entrance to Berlin could outweigh the complex technical issues in the future if all parties can remain patient.

“There is overwhelming support to eliminate the use of the property as manufacturing and convert it to residential use,” he said. “The project proposed for the site is so much better than what it was in the past and certainly better than what it has become.”

He said the Purnell Crossing project is more in keeping with the direction Berlin is heading in than the alternative.

“It represents a much more beneficial use of that property,” he said. “The direction the town has been going toward since the 1980s is historical preservation and arts and culture. Manufacturing is no longer compatible with where the town is heading.”