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Cider maker nixes Connor Homes building sale

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Posted on May 26, 2011 |
By Lee J. Kahrs and John Flowers



MIDDLEBURY — The discovery of environmental contamination at the Connor Homes building on Route 7 South in Middlebury has halted the planned sale of the 115,000-square-foot manufacturing plant to booming hard cider maker Green Mountain Beverage (GMB).

It also put on hold Connor Homes’ plans to lease the 131,000-square-foot former Tubbs furniture plant in the Brandon Industrial Park.

Mike Connor, owner of Connor Homes, confirmed Monday that environmental testing had uncovered contamination under the company’s current location, the former Standard Register building.

In a deal announced in January, GMB, maker of Woodchuck Hard Cider, was to expand in the Connor Homes building. But the discovery of the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, under the Connor Homes building in Middlebury torpedoed the deal.

“So, after all these months of planning with this move, we don’t have a sale, which is unfortunate,” Connor said. “We’re very disappointed because we were excited about moving to Brandon.”

Connor said his bank required more environmental testing before closing on the sale of the building. A Phase II environmental test, which required drilling through the floor of the building, uncovered the existence of TCE.

“We found that Standard Register had contaminated parts of the property under the floor,” Connor said. “Of course, all we’ve added is sawdust since we’ve been here.”

TCE was first produced in the 1920s and used for everything from anesthesia to coffee decaffeination to film cleaner. It was most popular up through the 1950s as a degreaser for metal parts.

Standard Register manufactures and prints business-related forms on a large scale, serving the industrial and health care industries.

Connor said the TCE will be cleaned up and that he is working with Phelps Engineering in Middlebury to that end, but the damage to his business plan is done.

“TCE is something that can be cleaned up and we will be doing so, but this is not something you want in a food or beverage business,” Connor said. “I think (GMB’s) interest is that they don’t want to be involved in the cleanup.”

Green Mountain Beverage CEO Brett Williams confirmed on Tuesday that his company is no longer in the running to buy the Connor Homes property.

“We are sorry this didn’t work out; we were on the one-yard line,” said Williams, who explained GMB doesn’t have the time needed to wait out the prospective cleanup process.

Williams noted the company has already spent three years trying to finalize expansion plans and needs to have a project completed by the first quarter of 2013 in order to meet its growth targets.

“We will now roll all the drawings back on the table,” Williams said of previous options, which now include building a new facility — preferably on Route 7 South with water and sewer connections.

GROWING COMPANY

GMB began in Proctorsville in 1990 and moved into Middlebury’s industrial park in 2000, into space owned by J.P. Carrara & Sons. Williams bought the company in 2003 after having signed on as its first salesperson in 1996.

GMB grew quickly under Williams’ watch. The new space and Middlebury’s water/sewer infrastructure allowed the company and its 70 workers to greatly upgrade the operation, to the extent that its fully automated production line can now crank out 11,000 cases (264,000 bottles) of hard cider daily, which is shipped by the truckload to distributors in all 50 states.

With demand for its products continuing to grow, GMB last year found itself at a crossroads: Expand at its Middlebury site, or move into a larger facility in Brandon — ironically, the former Vermont Tubbs furniture factory. The company opted for the former scenario after the Middlebury selectboard in February of 2010 granted the GMB some tax stabilization guarantees based on a projected increase in taxable real estate and new employees. Those incentives were projected to save the company around $78,000 in one-time fees based on its proposed expansion figures.

But it was less than a year later that the company announced plans to instead acquire and move into the Connor Homes headquarters. Meanwhile, Connor Homes said it would leave Middlebury and relocate to the Tubbs complex.

The latest news presents at least a temporary setback for two major, local manufacturers.

Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny pledged the town’s help in hopefully finding a local solution for the two companies. He added the tax stabilization offer is still on the table for GMB’s initial plans to expand at its current location. That deal had also been transferred to the GMB move to the Connor Homes property.

“We, as a town, will look to do everything possible to help GMB satisfy its needs going forward and to help Connor Homes,” Tenny said. “We want to do everything we can to keep them successful in Middlebury.”

Robin Scheu, executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp., agreed.

“Hopefully, things will work out to everyone’s satisfaction,” said Scheu, who has been communicating with officials from both companies.

Williams reiterated his desire to keep the company in Middlebury.

“Our ultimate goal was to stay in Middlebury and we hope to see that through,” he said.

DISAPPOINTMENT

This is the latest in a string of disappointments for the town of Brandon in its attempts to fill the Tubbs space, beginning with the closing of the Tubbs furniture company in July 2008. The plant closure left 90 employees jobless.

Since then there have been close calls finding a tenant for the former Tubbs building, but no home runs. Perhaps the closest was in February 2010, when GMB was considering a move to the Tubbs building. But the company was wooed by Middlebury town officials to stay at their 62,000-square-foot facility on Pond Lane.

Now the deal to get Connor Homes into the Tubbs building has hit a snag, but Brandon Economic Development Officer Steve Beck said he is holding out hope that the contamination issue at Connor’s Middlebury plant can be resolved and allow Connor to sell it and move to Brandon. In the meantime, Beck said he would court other potential tenants.

“I’m hoping they can resolve this and re-enter into a deal,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping for, but if someone calls and says, ‘I’m looking for a 115,000-square-foot building,’ I’ll say, ‘When do you want to meet?’”

Connor Homes was founded in 1969 and specializes in producing colonial reproduction kit homes. The company quickly grew from a handful of employees to 65 in early 2007, prompting Connor to grow the business out of the 14,000 square feet it was occupying off Exchange Street. He seized the opportunity during the spring of 2007 when Standard Register vacated its Route 7 South headquarters. Connor Homes purchased the property, viewing it as a location into which it could grow and meet increasing demand, while eventually boosting its work force, but the recession hit and the number of employees dropped to 44 earlier this year.

At the time the GMB/Connor deal was announced in January, however, Connor was optimistic that the company would grow in Brandon and anticipated hiring more workers in the coming years. And, Connor said he is seeing business pick up nicely after two years of decreased sales. That makes the canceled move more painful.

“The year 2011 is much better than what we saw over the last few years, which is good,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the option of moving until this issue is resolved.”

More bad news for Connor: Not only did he pay for the environmental testing on his building when he bought it from Standard Register, he paid for the Phase II testing as well. And, Connor said he’s already spent some money preparing the Tubbs building for a move that won’t happen.

“We had spent a considerable amount of money on electrical upgrades and even moved some of our building materials into the Tubbs space,” he said.

Then there’s the legal question. Connor said he’s convinced the culprit is Standard Register, but said it’s too soon to speculate on legal action.

“I have no idea,” he said. “In our mind, there is no question that this is a contamination (Standard Register) caused. I’m told you’re responsible for contamination forever, whether you still own the property or not. Sure, they’re position is that it was accidental, but even so, they’re still culpable.”

The Brandon Reportercontacted the media relations department for Standard Register in Columbus, Ohio, and left a message on Monday night requesting comment regarding the contamination. Carol Merry, vice president of Falgren Mortine Public Relations, called back Tuesday morning with the following two-sentence statement from Standard Register:

“We sold this property in 2007. This is the first time we have been contacted by anyone about this, so we have no information and it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment.”

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