It wasn't a traditional groundbreaking — officials unfurled a banner rather than tossed a symbolic shovelful of soil — but Wednesday's event at the site of the planned $14 million Turkey Hill Experience project in Columbia signaled a new era for a historic silk mill.
"This old shell of a building will be transformed. By the time it's opened in April 2011, we'll have 250,000 visitors a year coming to Columbia," said John Cox, Turkey Hill Dairy executive vice president, speaking at the event.
Featuring 26,000 square feet of dining areas and retail space, the new attraction, at Third and Linden streets, will showcase nine different interactive exhibit area allowing visitors to learn more about how dairies work, how ice cream is made and the history of the company.
Bob Adams, Experience center manager, said when visitors enter the attraction, they will proceed to a second-floor "hub" with three distinct spaces where they can learn how Turkey Hill makes its celebrated tea, relive the company's early days serving as a main dairy for Columbia Borough or enter through a gigantic ice cream container for an interactive walking tour on how the ice cream is made.
"This is going to be a visitors' destination, but on the western side of the county," Adams said. "By reusing the (former Little Prince silk mill) site, we're preserving farmland somewhere else."
Redeveloping an abandoned industrial site has not been without its problems. In September 2009, engineers discovered groundwater containing benzene, a known carcinogen, and two other industrial solvents, located about 30 feet beneath the surface of the 2.7-acre site.
Columbia Borough councilwoman Sandy Duncan said the borough oversaw a $250,000 cleanup of the site with the help of the state's Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Community and Economic Development.
That work delayed the project by a year.
"The next battery of tests after the cleanup showed everything was OK," she said. "The scientists and engineers have assured us that all issues have been resolved."
The borough sold the property in June for $950,000 to developer Bill Roberts of IBS Development Corp. of Harrisburg, Turkey Hill Dairy and Museum Partners.
The Turkey Hill Experience will work in Columbia, Borough Manager Norm Meiskey said, because the facility is going to be "absolute state-of-science," pulling visitors off of Route 30 when they might be driving between the attractions at Gettysburg and the Plain-community attractions in the eastern part of the county.
"This is going to be like Chocolate World at Hershey or maybe even something you would find at Disney World," Meiskey said. "When visitors come here to the Turkey Hill Experience they're going to want to come back … and they're going to want to come back to Columbia, too."