Bryan clean up landing in city's lap

Piles of rubble and unused buildings still cover the 70-acre site that was once home to Bryan Foods and Sara Lee.
Staff Writer

It once was the city's lifeblood. Now the random piles that remain attract nothing more than birds, stray cats and dogs, and a fox. To the wild imagination, they look like head's rising from the concrete, stringy hair shooting in every direction, bent and frayed. It could pass for a bombed-out neighborhood or war zone.

And soon, West Point leaders know they will have to do something about it.

More than seven years ago, Fred Kohart and his Ohio-based salvage company bought the 70-acre Bryan Foods/Sara Lee site and the 550,000 square feet of buildings scattered across the site between Church Hill and Tibbee roads.

He planned to sell off the buildings that had some remaining use and scrap as much as 350,000 square feet for the metal.

The plan went along well until the state Department of Environmental Quality cracked down in 2013 because Kohart had not properly mitigated the hazardous asbestos in the old buildings. He reached an agreement with the state, paid a $7,500 fine and took care of much of the asbestos.

But it's been two years since his crews have done anything. Some business owners and investors have bought four or five of the buildings, The Mission, a faith-based drug and alcohol recovery program and social service group, obtained two buildings and more than seven acres.

But the city is left with more than 30 acres of crumbling structures, piles of debris, and buildings with gaping holes.

"He's gotten a clean bill of health on the asbestos from the state Department of Environmental Quality and sold some of the buildings, but he's done, he's gone," West Point City Administrator Randy Jones said of Kohart.

Sara Lee shuttered the plant in 2007, eliminating the final 1,200 jobs in a facility that once employed as many as 2,000 people, providing jobs that touched almost every family in the region.

When he bought the property in September 2010, Kohart offered the city not just on the site.

Now the city will have to find some partners to remove the eyesore.

"We could try to pressure him to finish the clean up, but we suspect he'd just say he has no money or we'd be in for a long fight for nothing," Jones said.

"We know it's a problem. Sooner or later we are going to have to put our heads together with everyone and try to figure out what to do," he continued, referring to property owners and state environmental groups.

One possibility is getting the non-hazardous materials arm of DEQ to get involved to either force the clean up or provide funding to have it done.

"We can't do it on our own. It's not going to be cheap. Hopefully we can get some help from the state," Jones explained, noting hauling away a small amount of debris to Brooksville cost $100,000.
"It would be great if they could figure something out," said Mike Cianci, one of the founders of The Mission.

About three of the Mission's 7.5 acres is scarred with piles of debris and old concrete building footings and scrap metal.

"The only thing we can think of is to try to get all this cleaned off some how and fill it in. If the city and the state can figure something out, that would be good for everything," he said, sweeping his arm toward the debris for emphasis.

"The bad thing is there aren't any easy answers. We're stuck between a rock and a hard place," Jones concluded.