The former Dalton Foundry closed in 2009 and has sat vacant since then. On June 30, Garrett LLC acquired the property and will demolish the foundry. Staff photo by Barry Rochford
The former Dalton Foundry closed in 2009 and has sat vacant since then. On June 30, Garrett LLC acquired the property and will demolish the foundry. Staff photo by Barry Rochford

Barry Rochford, News-Sun

KENDALLVILLE — Michael Heitz believes he can turn the former Dalton Foundry site, which had sat vacant and been left to deteriorate since workers poured the plant’s last iron mold in 2009, into an asset — for the community and his company.

He believes the 67-acre property can be redeveloped and reinvigorated. He believes his business, Lexington, Kentucky-based Garrett LLC, can make money doing it. He believes the site has the infrastructure and the potential to be attractive to other companies.

But his decision to acquire the foundry site June 30 from Neenah Enterprises Inc. for an undisclosed amount might not have happened if it wasn’t for his family.

“My sister lives over there,” Heitz said, pointing east of the site following an event Tuesday afternoon that marked the beginning of the foundry’s demolition. “And she just complained over all those years that she lived there just how dirty (the foundry) was and it was closed down.”

Redeveloping old, contaminated factory sites is Garrett LLC’s specialty, Heitz said. Formed in 2002, the company has worked on more than 20 projects, primarily in the Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, areas. Garrett LLC has focused on Ohio, largely because of incentives available in that state for cleaning up industrial sites.

The Dalton Foundry site is the company’s first project in Indiana, although Heitz himself is no stranger to the area.

The 7-foot-tall Heitz grew up in Garrett and was a basketball star before going off to play at West Virginia University. His nephew is Kendallville native and former NBA All-Star Brad Miller, and he understands the confusion that might occur from a company named “Garrett” doing work in “rival” Kendallville.

“I thought I would never be up here in this area, so I thought it would be a good name to use,” Heitz said of his company’s name, drawing a laugh from those attending Tuesday’s event.

The long-ago high school rivalry hasn’t prevented Kendallville officials from embracing Heitz’s return to the area.

“It’s like having family come home,” Kendallville City Councilman Jim Dazey said at the event Tuesday.

The foundry, which was started by Nicholas Newnam on West Ohio Street in 1927 and made iron castings for engine heads and air conditioning and refrigeration products, will be torn down in 90 to 120 days, Heitz said. Environmental cleanup work will take one to two years.

After the state approves the cleanup work, the site will be marketed for commercial and industrial uses. Its location and existing infrastructure are expected to make it an attractive property.

“This is a great location,” Heitz said. “You have city utilities. You have rail service. It’s right here; it’s in an industrial area here. We think it’s prime for another commercial property or industry to be in this area.”

Mayor Suzanne Handshoe said while the former Dalton Foundry is an important part of Kendallville’s history and legacy, a new direction for the site was needed. Since the foundry’s closing in 2009 — which was accompanied by nearly 300 layoffs — a few companies had expressed an interest in firing the plant back up. But that interest fizzled out.

So when Heitz approached her more than a year ago about cleaning up the property and she saw his track record with other industrial projects, she offered to provide assistance in whatever way the city could.

“It has been said many times that a community either grows or it dies,” she said. “It cannot stay the same.”

But the city will take steps to consider how a company wanting to move into the redeveloped industrial property will affect the surrounding area, she said.

“We’ll be cautious of what we allow to go in here, keeping mindful that this a neighborhood next to a food industry,” Handshoe said.

Garrett LLC will use contractors to carry out the demolition work and to recycle materials from the site. Although Tuesday’s event marked the start of demolition, for much of the past week workers had been busy tearing down portions of the former foundry.

The company will let one building stand to use for storage. The grassy hills next to the plant eventually will be leveled.

“I think it’s going to make a beautiful site for some future industry here in Kendallville that can support a lot of families, and over the years it will support a lot more families,” Dazey said.

Rick Sherck, executive director of the Noble County Economic Development Corp., said once the former Dalton Foundry has been demolished and the site cleaned up, it will be another attractive selling point for the county’s economic development efforts. Noble County has existing industrial parks in Albion, Avilla, Kendallville, Ligonier and Rome City.

He likened the project to grocery shopping.

“When you go to the grocery store and want to buy cereal, you want to have lots of choices,” Sherck said.