Soft drinks and hardball

August 18, 1993

There is no question that having a Coca-Cola bottling and syrup plant built in Howard County is a boon to the state and local economy. Maryland and Howard economic development officials have fought hard to get the plant located in the county.

Last fall, we supported previous efforts to reduce by $5 million a fee the company must pay for heavy water use. At that time, it appeared Coke was prepared to back out of the project unless that condition was met.

Now, however, the county faces another crisis over the construction of a waste water treatment facility for Coke. Company representatives told county officials recently that they need 15 more acres to build their plant -- and they want the county to pay the cost, which could run as much as $2 million.

Having been handed this problem, the county must act without the haste that characterized the initial negotiations. Whereas we winced -- as did the governor -- when County Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass seemed cavalier about scuttling the project last fall, we're inclined to agree with her cautionary stance on this latest snag.

To be sure, the $100 million Coke facility means hundreds of jobs and millions in property and income tax dollars. With other jurisdictions and states competing over the shrinking pie of expanding businesses, the county can't afford to jeopardize this project.

However, neither can Coke expect the county to eat all its mistakes as it experiments with combining a bottling and syrup operation in one location. Coke officials were well aware that their waste water treatment needs were not typical of other county businesses and that a pre-treatment facility would have to be built.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker says that Coke's position is that the county should pay all the cost for land acquisition because normally businesses use the county's sewage treatment plant to process their waste for a fee. But that argument doesn't wash.

Coke's treatment needs are not typical and were known to require a special facility that could handle the specific problems involving syrup pre-treatment and processing.

Furthermore, it was Coke's mistake in assuming that the land it had already acquired was sufficient. If the county must strike a deal on this with Coca-Cola, it should be one that places most of the onus on the company.

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