Activity At Chocolate Plant Raises Hopes

There’s activity at the closed chocolate plant in Fulton, and it’s fueling hopes of yet another rebound for the city’s signature industry.

“I know they’ve been doing work there,” said Mayor Ron Woodward Tuesday night after a member of the public noted that workers were cleaning up the parking lot area at the former Nestle factory.

“They’re doing maintenance on the roofs,” he said.  “They’re keeping it in great shape.”

Nestle abandoned the plant and Fulton in 2003, after a century of chocolate production here.  The first chocolate made in North America was made in Fulton and the Fulton plant created key Nestle products, such as the Crunch bar and Nestle Quik.  The company moved production of chocolate products to plants in Wisconsin and Brazil.

In 2004, a company called New York Chocolate and Confections bought the facility and filled it with cocoa bean-roasting chocolate making equipment to replace what Nestle had sold at auction.  The company was created by an investment firm in the United States, working with the coffee and cocoa promotion agency of the African nation of the Ivory Coast.

Cocoa is the lifeblood of the economy of the Ivory Coast.  It accounts for 40 percent of the world’s cocoa and employs some 6 million residents of the country.

The Fulton plant was seen as an opportunity for the Ivory Coast to take direct control of its key financial asset.

But the plant became bogged down in controversy, as the investment company and the government agency traded accusations of fraud and embezzlement.  The issue is still in litigation.  In the Ivory Coast, as many as two dozen officials involved in the cocoa industry have been arrested as part of a corruption investigation over cocoa money, of which the Fulton plant is a part.

The plant’s neighbor, a now-closed power plant, is part of the problem as well.  The plant supplied power to the chocolate factory.  It was bought by the investment company involved in the chocolate plant.  The plant was seized for unpaid taxes and sold at auction.  The buyer sold the power-making equipment.  It was dismantled and shipped away.  Woodward said a boiler’s been installed at the plant in recent months, but power to the facility remains an issue.

Within the past week, some of the arrested officials had their detentions extended.  A judge said they could be held until at least February, 2010, which will mark 20 months since their arrests.  Not one of the arrested officials has had a trial, though some have had as many as eight court hearings.  Four officials are suing, claiming they’ve been kept in prison too long.

Ivorian officials still want to make chocolate in Fulton.  They’re keeping a small staff at the plant to maintain it.

Woodward said that some local folks are just back from a visit to the Ivory Coast.  Alderman Daryl Hayden said he had heard that officials from the Ivory Coast are scheduled to visit Fulton this week.

“We all hope we will smell the beans roasting again,” said Hayden, a Nestle retiree.

“If you smell chocolate, call the Mayor,” joked Alderman Tom Kenyon.

Sources for the Ivory Coast aspects of the story:


Original arrests story: