Tuesday, March 17, 1998
Lights go out on produce firms

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Gary Sanzone and Bill Palmisano were at work Monday morning at the family fruit and vegetable company. They were turning out the lights. This is progress. Really it is. Things change. People, too. Produce Way is history. Nothing personal.

We needed the space for a football stadium.

You will excuse Gary and Bill if it feels a little personal. The heavy black letters on the side of the cream-colored building facing Cinergy Field read Sanzone-Palmisano. This is the company started in 1914 by their grandparents.

A family business

Bill, 48, was about 6 when he first came to work with his father. He was not unusual. It was a family business. Most companies were begun by Italian immigrants, farmers in the old country, who became fruit peddlers, then store owners, then wholesalers. They came in from Norwood and Fairmount at midnight to get ready for the next day's market.

Buyers came from five states. Gary, 46, remembers train whistles, the whine of trucks hauling blocks of ice, vendors haggling over prices, auctioneers - a wonderful confusion of noise. And aroma. Oranges. Apples. Bananas.

We have officially decided with our vote and our wrecking balls that the Ohio River bank will no longer be a place of business. It will be our playground. Football, baseball, restaurants, boats. We've been heading that way since the 1948 Metropolitan Master Plan, a blueprint to transform the riverfront into a recreational area.

Work finally started in 1962 when voters passed a $6.6 million bond issue. Most everything - the baseball stadium, Serpentine Wall, parks, the coliseum, apartment buildings - was built east of the Suspension Bridge. Produce warehouses were to the west. Now the west is orange. Barrels, barricades, heavy equipment. And brown. Gouged earth and dusty streets. The wrecking balls have done their work on the Castellini buildings. Some smaller companies are salvaging compressors and pieces of equipment they might use at new places in Norwood and Tri-County. Crosset Co. is hanging on, just out of the path of progress.

Sanzone-Palmisano is simply closing its doors.

End of the line

''My grandpa would roll over in his grave,'' Gary says. ''But we just didn't think we could make it in another spot.'' It would, they say, cost too much to rebuild, and they fear the smaller produce companies won't draw enough traffic.

''It was like a shopping mall,'' Gary says. Customers were lured by the chance to look at several businesses. ''Now, they might just go to one place, where they can get everything they need, even if they can't shop.'' Castellini? ''Right.''

If Produce Way was like a mall, Robert Castellini's operation is like a Kroger Superstore or a Bigg's, selling fruits and vegetables plus specialty items, such as fancy salad mix. And Mr. Castellini is taking his very fine and prosperous company with its 300 jobs to Wilder, Ky.

Could the city and the county have done more to keep a produce center? Well, of course. After all, we are building a very expensive sports palace where they once were. We have made a clear choice.

Bill is taking some of the guys from the phone and utility companies through his building, helping them turn everything off. He's not sure what he'll do next. Gary isn't, either. Real estate? Maybe. Retirement is out. They're too young.

It's cold in the warehouse already. Some of the pebbled glass in the windows is broken. And Gary fumbles a little with some old ledgers, running his fingers down a row of numbers, written before he was born.

Bill and Gary are businessmen who were boys together in this place, then partners. Now, they're liquidators. They're not bitter. Just sad. This is the end of some of their most cherished memories, their history.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

PULFER ARCHIVE