Elias family hopeful about development
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Joseph Elias knows whatever he builds on the former Lehigh Valley Dairy property will change the Lehigh Valley for the better. That’s why the patriarch of the Elias family decided to purchase the sprawling property on MacArthur Road for $1.35 million.
“We want to redevelop and clean up the area,” said Joseph Elias, who runs the bustling Elias Farm Market in Allentown. “I am always looking for ways to benefit the community. This is our home.”
The 10-acre property had languished in disrepair for more than 30 years, and earlier this year, Joseph Elias and his son Gus were looking for property on which to potentially build another farm market when their real estate agent suggested the dairy property.
Gus Elias said he remembers passing the old property while he was growing up in Whitehall.
“The property has a lot of potential,” Gus Elias said. “We thought, ‘Wow — this is something that can be good for the community.’ It’s in the heart of the Lehigh Valley on MacArthur Road. It is the end of Whitehall and the gateway to Allentown.”
The family owns a total of 14 acres at the site since they also bought a 4-acre lot at 845 Sumner Ave., just behind the dairy property, earlier this year.
“We’ve never had anything this big, but we are not afraid of it,” Gus Elias said. “We want something good because our name is on it. We’re excited.”
“Everything is from nothing,” added Joseph Elias, who immigrated to the United States from a family of farmers from Lebanon in 1979.
“I was 18,” Joseph Elias said. “I was young and fresh off the boat, and the United States was the land of opportunity.”
Joseph Elias said he got married right away and started working in a factory. But his entrepreneurial spirit soon had him buying 50-pound bags of potatoes and selling them individually door to door to make extra money.
“That led me into produce,” he said.
First, he opened a farm market in front of his home and then opened his first store on Ridge Avenue in Allentown in 1984. As his business grew, he opened the present market at 101 Tilghman St., Allentown.
The thriving business allowed him to bring over his nine brothers and sisters, one by one — all of whom have worked at the farm market.
“Our customers were growing, and every four or five years, we made the store bigger,” Joseph Elias said.
The store went from 3,500 square feet to 10,000 square feet, Gus Elias added.
That’s why Joseph and Gus Elias were looking for property on which they could expand the business; they came across the dairy property.
Whitehall had struggled for years trying to find someone to develop the blighted property.
The building, renovated from a silk mill, opened as a dairy in 1934 under ownership of Lehigh Valley Cooperative Farmers and closed in 1989. In its heyday, the dairy was a familiar fixture in the Lehigh Valley with its popular dairy bar. Whitehall High School graduations were held in the four-story art deco building.
Since it was abandoned, the building had fallen into disrepair, and now the 275,000-square-foot concrete building will have to be demolished.
Joseph Elias said he hopes to try to save some of the building’s art deco decorations and use them in a new building.
“I like the challenge,” he said.
At Elias Farm Market, customers stream into the store where pink dragon fruit shares space with locally grown apples. The market specializes in exotic and international produce, which is flown in daily, and Joseph Elias said some customers drive hours to shop the diverse inventory.
He said it’s in his blood since he grew up growing bananas and avocados in Lebanon, where his father still works as a farmer. Gus Elias said, likewise, he grew up working at the farm market with his father.
“As kids, we would come to hang out and work,” he said. “All the family helped. That was important, and it made us love it.”
Joseph Elias called it “a blessing” that many of his family work at the market.
“So many kids graduate and leave, and their parents might see them twice a year,” he said. “I’m lucky to see my kids day and night.”
He is just as enthusiastic about the community he lives in.
“I’ve been here for 40 years,” he said. “Wherever I go, I can’t wait to come home.”
Gus Elias said the family’s community focus is a benefit for developing the dairy property.
“Us not being outside developers makes it better,” he said. “We are part of the community. It’s like the community is developing it.”