After more than a year in suspense, the new owner of the former Wilbur Chocolate plant in downtown Lititz has emerged with a mixed-use future for the 11-acre property.
Lancaster-based Oak Tree Development Group, which purchased the property from Cargill Inc., announced it will add five new buildings to the soon-to-be refurbished former chocolate factory.
Mike O’Brien, Oak Tree president, unveiled plans Tuesday to renovate the existing building at 47 N. Broad St. and add upscale, loft-style apartments, a 70-room boutique hotel, sit-down bistro and small retail shops.
Preliminary plans for the remaining land show a promenade connection to Lititz Spring Park and two new buildings offering luxury garden apartments.
Plans also call for building a pair of condominium-style structures offering 55-plus living with the ability to affiliate with continued care at Pleasant View Retirement Community in Penn Township.
“Our goal is to preserve as much of this iconic building as possible, and we look forward to offering different uses that will benefit our local community,” O’Brien said. “We hope to bring more people into the area to live, shop, dine and stay in the best little town in America.”
RLPS of Lancaster will serve as project architect, and RGS Associates of Lancaster is the land planner.
Oak Tree intends to use local companies in the development to create more than 100 construction jobs and several permanent jobs upon completion, O’Brien said.
“Oak Tree is excited to have an opportunity to work on a project that will create jobs and respect the small-town charm of Lititz,” he said.
The Wilbur site includes the former 179,798-square-foot manufacturing building on 3.3 acres of land and two additional sites of .14 acres at 47 N. Broad St., and 7.69 acres of land to the rear, west of 48 N. Broad St.
Cargill put the property up for bid in March 2016 and had expected to announce a new owner a month later.
Oak Tree, a 12-year-old firm, which currently owns and manages more than 1.3 million square feet of commercial and industrial space, had won the bid but the announcement has been held up for almost a year as details were worked out.
Lisa Riggs, president of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, said the proposed project is a “best outcome” for Lititz because it is consistent with the vision the community was looking for and is led by Oak Tree Development “who is local, a known entity, and committed to Lancaster County as a whole.”
“Credit the Lititz community who’ve made the area a place where people want to invest,” Riggs said. “And credit Cargill who could have shuttered the building and walked away for a few years. This is a very complicated project. A building like this could sit for a decade and be a blight as has happened in many older small downtown communities.”
Though EDC has not been involved in the project yet &tstr; other than as ambassador in promoting smart growth &tstr; it could help facilitate e-business resources and capital. O’Brien did not speculate on the cost of the project nor discuss financing.
Karen Weibel, president of Lititz Borough Council, said the project meets the borough’s community planning goals which “revolve around respecting the built environment, while enabling appropriate change.
“We must accommodate the needs of our residents and businesses, while at the same time understanding shifts in the marketplace,” she said. “We are pleased with the opportunity before us, and look forward to working with the Oak Tree team as they breathe new life into a community landmark.”
The property operated as a chocolate factory from 1899 until 2016. Though the current project has no name, it is likely to continue to foster a chocolate theme as Oak Tree is working with Cargill to preserve some of the iconic Wilbur features.
Cargill, which moved its retail Wilbur Chocolate Store from the factory across the street in October, features historical Wilbur and confectionery industry artifacts, a kitchen where visitors can watch candies being handmade using Wilbur chocolate, and a wide selection of products, including the iconic Wilbur Buds.
“It was always our goal to find a buyer for the building that understood and respected its historical significance and its importance to people in Lititz and throughout Lancaster County,” said Cargill Cocoa and Chocolate North America President Bryan Wurscher. “As a member of this community, we are thrilled with Oak Tree’s decision to purchase the building and about the plans it has in store for the site.”
Oak Tree will continue to further refine its plans and submit for initial approvals in the next 60 days. The approval process is expected to take until the end of the year.
There are two baseball fields currently used by Warwick Little League on the property. Cargill has provided use of this area to the Little League at no cost for a number of years.
Little League board members are working with Lititz Borough, Warwick Township, and the Regional Recreation Commission to find suitable replacement fields for future seasons. Oak Tree has met with representatives of the league on ways to create a smooth transition for youth baseball.
Oak Tree is also working with the borough and local groups on matters related to the Norfolk Southern rail siding and the annual fireworks at Lititz Springs Park.
“We care deeply about the local community, and we’re working with all stakeholders to create solutions for everyone,” O’Brien said.
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