WHEN it opened in 1920, Highlandtown's Esskay plant was a miracle of artificial refrigeration surrounded by stockyards.
By 1992, when it closed, the operation was outmoded. The family ownership by descendants of butcher William F. Schluderberg and pork packer Thomas Kurdle was long gone.
During a ceremony yesterday, Smithfield Foods Inc. donated the 13-acre site to the Essex Community College Foundation, a non-profit scholarship fund. The vandalized and torched old plant buildings will be demolished within the next few months. It will be replaced by an industrial park.
"It's not going to be smokestacks or billowing clouds," foundation board member Robert N. Santoni Sr., said of the transformation, which will be achieved with more than $2 million in state, federal and city funds.
Unless unexpected snags emerge in cleaning up possible toxins on the site, the first of three buildings should be ready for occupancy a year from now.
Eventually, a half-dozen businesses could occupy some 240,000 square feet of space, providing up to 300 jobs.
Redevelopment of the Esskay site is tremendous news for Highlandtown, which is trying to reverse decades of decline.
Much of the area's old industrial hulks are vacant or underused. As the Vaccaro Italian Pastry Shop at 3705 E. Baltimore St. shows, their redevelopment potential can be successfully exploited.
Closer to the harbor, some old factories are being eyed for residential conversion now that Highlandtown, too, is beginning to benefit from spillover from the booming Canton area.
With the Esskay redevelopment taking off, city and state economic officials should zero in on revitalizing the nearby industrial corridor along Pulaski Highway and Monument Street. It is full of potential that could be harnessed to aid this economic turnaround.