Little Hampstead has a huge new neighbor, Sweetheart Cup Co.
You'll find it just beyond the town limits, behind the homes and storefronts lining Main Street. It's a concrete giant so big that seven Wal-Marts would fit inside with room to spare. All 4,500 people living in Hampstead could easily fit under its 51-acre roof.
"I'm hoping they'll be a good neighbor," said Chris Cavey, who owns an insurance agency on Main Street.
"People have no idea how big this building really is. I was checking for a leak on my roof recently and I got an exceptional view.
"A guy driving a pickup truck is dwarfed by the side of that building. Dwarfed!" he said. "I personally want to get a tour when it's done."
That will be in mid-July. By August, Sweetheart's 1.03-million-square-foot warehouse will be in full operation, loading up to 120 tractor-trailers a day at 85 docks with some of the cups, lids, straws, plates, deli trays, plastic forks, stirrers, toothpicks, popcorn bags, condiment cups, french-fry bags and fried-chicken buckets produced by the company in a year -- 14 billion in all. All will be stored in a cavernous building, waiting to be hauled to distributors throughout Maryland and the Northeast.
Sweetheart's building is part of a trend of warehouse consolidation by companies pursuing more efficient delivery of goods. The building also is the result of Sweetheart's need for more space in Owings Mills for its subsidiary, EarthShell Corp. of Annapolis Junction, to produce new biodegradable packaging for one of its best-known clients, McDonald's Corp.
Construction of the building has been an enormous job, requiring movement of more than 1 billion pounds of dirt for a structure requiring so much concrete that a plant was built on the site. The builder, St. Louis-based Clayco Construction Co., reasoned that it would be more efficient to make the 56,500 tons of concrete on location rather than haul it in.
Workers at the nearly completed building drive around inside the 1,640-foot-by-630-foot structure in trucks and cars.
"It's not every building project where you have to consider a speed limit" indoors, said Gregg Ernst, the civil engineer supervising the construction for Clayco, which specializes in constructing large warehouses.
One large open room
Sweetheart -- which traces its beginnings to the Eat-It-All ice cream cone, straws and the Maryland Cup Co. -- found only three parcels in Maryland big enough and zoned appropriately for the $28 million building: one in Harford County, one in Baltimore County and the Hampstead site.
The company chose Hampstead because of its proximity to Sweetheart's headquarters in Owings Mills and to major highways, said Thomas Pasqualini, Sweetheart's vice president for logistics.
Carroll County's only other enormous structure, Random House's distribution center in Westminster, is larger -- 1.2 million square feet -- but it is spread over six buildings, said Jeff Sprinkle, vice president for distribution and administration there.
Sweetheart's is a single building and, except for a few offices, the building is one open room. The company will employ 135 people at the warehouse, and work will continue around the clock. At any given time, about 40 employees will be inside the building, far outnumbered by the 1.8 billion cups, plates and other items that will surround them.
"We wanted to have all our products in one place," Pasqualini said. "The customer can give one purchase order. You have one truck, one customer."
In the past, Sweetheart might have had to gather different products from different warehouses, wasting delivery time. Once the construction is complete at the Hampstead warehouse, a computer system will be installed to ensure that the correct combination of Sweetheart products has been gathered from the building's 2.5 miles of conveyors for delivery. Workers will drive computer-equipped forklifts and communicate by two-way radio with supervisors driving about in golf carts.
Panel by panel
They will be working in a building erected with a construction technique known as "tilt-up concrete."
In this method of construction, workers pour a floor section, then let it dry for seven days. The crew then lays a 16-foot-by-40-foot wooden tray on top of the new floor. Concrete is poured into the tray, and after it dries, the panel is pulled up by a crane until it is perpendicular to the floor. The new wall section is then secured to the floor with an iron brace.
Meanwhile, another crew performs the same process, which is repeated more than 200 times during construction.
The iron rods are temporary, and will be removed when welders and roofers complete connection of 5.2 million pounds of steel roof joists and supporting columns. A rubber roof has been put in place and weighted down with 3 million pounds of rock. The weight keeps the roof from ballooning upward.
The building is owned by D & L Development of Westchester County, N.Y. Sweetheart has signed a 20-year lease.
The project wasn't initially welcomed by some in Hampstead.
The prospect of increased truck traffic on Route 30, a busy two-lane highway, concerned residents when they learned of Sweetheart's plans in September.
But Sweetheart officials have told neighbors and Hampstead officials that they'll try to restrain most of the traffic to off-peak hours.
Company officials also met with homeowners and agreed to plant trees, lower the fence surrounding the property and build up a berm of land along one side of the building to shield trucks from view.
Sweetheart officials say larger warehouses are a growing trend. But Ken Ackerman, a Columbus, Ohio-based warehouse consultant, said they can pose problems.
Storing goods in one large building rather than in a cluster of buildings can increase losses in a fire.
"And it also creates a white elephant when you don't want the building anymore," Ackerman said. "It gets hard to get rid of."
He said Sears, Roebuck and Co. is trying to sell a warehouse outside Columbus that is four times the size of the one in Hampstead. Despite those caveats, builders said the project presented an exhilarating challenge.
James Fahie, a foreman with L. R. Willson & Sons Inc. in Gambrills, which did all the steel work for the building, recalled his first day at the site.
He said he stood at one corner of the building and couldn't see to the other end.
"I thought, 'How am I going to get there?' " said Fahie, of Halethorpe. "And here we are, on the last segment."