John F. Martin & Sons will bring the bacon home to Womelsdorf

By Erin Negley
Reading Eagle

A meat-processing company is renovating the former Valley Forge Flag Co. building in Womelsdorf.

After sitting vacant for years, the former Valley Forge Flag Co. building is getting an extreme makeover.

To transform the building into a bacon factory for John F. Martin & Sons, construction crews started by removing the walls of the steel-frame building and placing hydraulic lifts by each of the roof columns. One morning they lifted the roof a foot an hour. By the end of the day they had raised that section of the roof seven feet.

The roof raising was key in renovating the Womelsdorf flag factory and making space for tall equipment, high stacks for storage and larger HVAC units.

As fewer new industrial buildings are constructed, companies like John F. Martin & Sons Inc. are turning to renovating older spaces. The move saves time and money, repurposes buildings and brings vacant properties back on the tax roles.
The Stevens, Lancaster County-based company wants to expand production at a second property as sales increase. The smoked-meats manufacturer also distributes dairy products for other companies, and some of those products carry the Martin label. Martin hot dogs, ham and bacon are distributed throughout the mid-Atlantic region, said Bernell Martin, vice president of plant operations and part of the third generation of Martins at the company.

The company doesn’t slaughter but processes the meat in an 83,000 square-foot plant in a rural, agricultural area in northern Lancaster County. When looking for a new site to increase production, management wanted a property with better access for delivery trucks, yet not too far away from the main plant.

Martin found the 190,000-square-foot building in Womelsdorf and liked it after a first walk-through. It’s about 12 miles from Stevens, right along Route 422.

“It has sufficient land there,” he said. “It gives us the potential for expansion and growth.”

The former Valley Forge Flag Co. building has sat vacant since 2005, when the company moved its manufacturing and distribution operations to South Carolina.

Martin management worried the building wouldn’t work because the roof was too low for its equipment and refrigeration. It also wasn’t a food-production space, so a total renovation was necessary.

They looked at other properties but kept coming back to the flag factory. The clincher came from a construction company that could literally raise the roof. Space Technology, a contractor from Uniondale, N.Y., that specializes in roof-raising work, spent about a month prepping for the lift. Crews placed hydraulic lifts beside each of the steel roof columns. On the big day, they raised the roof and then added new support posts.

Crews first raised the roof in a production area from 13 feet to 20 feet. Next, they’ll lift the roof in a storage and warehouse area from 17 feet to 30 feet in two phases.

Martin chose to renovate the property instead of building new to re-use the space and save money.

Renovating saves on many of the up-front costs with a new location, such as road improvements and parking lots, said Jack Echternach of Scenic Ridge Co. The Intercourse company is renovating the building, including replacing the floors, adding insulation to walls and ceilings and replacing the electrical, HVAC and plumbing systems.

Renovating also saves time.

“Everything’s a better schedule when you’re working with an existing building,” Echternach said.

Locally, there’s a trend to reuse older industrial building instead of building new, said Jim Adams, a senior agent at ReMax of Reading in Spring Township, who handles industrial, commercial and retail real estate.

While the overall real estate market has improved since the depths of the recession, the local industrial market’s still soft, Adams said. With the exception of the under-construction Bethel distribution centers, industrial inventory continues to shrink; and companies aren’t building new, making it more attractive to renovate.

“Building new is probably the last resort,” Adams said. “I don’t think it’s fiscally driven, but timeline driven.”

Going through the land-development and permitting process for a new building is a challenge and can be off-putting for businesses. Renovations still need to comply with construction codes but can be much simpler, Adams said.

Companies usually look for properties with good access to highways, high ceilings and loading docks. However, some older buildings can be inefficient with space spread over several floors, for example.

At the Valley Forge Flag site, Scenic Ridge found a single-story building with a few roof leaks, but otherwise in good shape.

The renovation started in mid-July, and Martin expects the plant to be finished in the first quarter of 2014. The company received financing assistance through tax-exempt bonds of up to $7 million from Berks County Industrial Development Authority for the $10.3 million project.

Martin will move its bacon production to a portion of the building and add a fourth slicing line. About 35 employees will relocate there, and an additional 10 to 15 jobs will be added, Martin said.

The move will allow ham production to increase at the Stevens site.

Later, Martin expects to move distribution to the Womelsdorf plant, with the potential to employ 100 there.

“We’re excited about the project,” Martin said. “We’re excited to get in there and get started being part of the town there.”

Contact Erin Negley: 610-371-5047 or .