Coke's disappointing news

August 08, 1994

For months, county officials suspected there was a problem with Coca Cola Enterprises' proposed Howard County plant. After rushing through the county's approval process, Coke hadn't started construction on the $200 million state-of-the-art bottling and distribution plant. Now Coke is stepping forward with an explanation: Competition in the beverage industry is forcing the company to change directions and rethink its emphasis on carbonated drinks.

The company informed disappointed state and county officials last week about their decision to put the proposed Dorsey plant on hold. The blow to the state and county is undeniable. It was thought the plant would be up and running by now, generating nearly 500 new jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue.

The prospects for a plant in Howard have diminished for the immediate future. Coke officials say they are reviewing the design of the plant to ensure it is capable of responding to market changes. The biggest shift among beverage producers has been from carbonated to fruit juice drinks. Coke has increased production of such drinks as PowerAde and Fruitopia, diminishing the need for a bottling plant that produces only Coke.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, facing re-election this year, did his best to disguise his disappointment. He said he was glad that Coke had not moved ahead with a plant that it couldn't use.

Led by Mr. Ecker, the county fought hard to secure the plant, making major concessions on land prices and water usage fees. At least one council member, Shane Pendergrass, criticized Mr. Ecker for acceding to Coke's demands to speed up the permitting process so the project could get under way.

In retrospect, the county's rush turned out not to be necessary. But hindsight also recalls that when Coke proposed its plant, the state was in the grips of a horrid recession. The economic boom the plant represented justified fast action. Elected officials responded accordingly, hoping that the massive construction project would provide a quick boost to the county's sagging economy.

The county will be hurt by Coke's reevaluation of this project. The immediate effect will be tighter revenue projections and more austere budgets. In the long term, though, the final chapter of this tale has yet to be written.

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