Jim Mathias, mayor of Ocean City and Coca-Cola's newest best friend, grew up in Baltimore and attended high school at Calvert Hall, where he remembers arriving early each morning and heading straight for that center of all true learning, the school cafeteria.
"There were, like, nine Coke machines lined up," Mathias was remembering the other day. "You could get a 16-ounce can of Coke for a dime. We'd each get a couple of Cokes, and we'd get some of those fresh-baked doughnuts in the cafeteria. By the time class started, we were sugared out. Those poor brothers didn't know what hit them."
Now, thanks once again to Mathias' favorite soft drink, some folks in Ocean City can't believe what's hitting them. It's more than a sugar rush. It's Coca-Cola arriving on the morning tide and setting up a beachhead.
As thousands of Maryland families prepare for their annual summer treks to the beach, Mathias has wrapped his hands around Coke for something he's calling "creative financing" and his critics are calling nastier names.
The new deal calls for Coca-Cola to pay Ocean City $120,000 in cash for each of the next five years, plus $97,000 a year to advertise the resort town's special events - no small consideration for a community with an expanded convention center and lots of space to fill. (Not that anybody in Baltimore could identify with such a problem.)
In return, Coca-Cola gets "exclusive pouring rights" at Ocean City's major events. And all vending companies on city property will carry the company's beverages.
Pretty sweet deal? Not necessarily.
Since its announcement last week, Mathias has been defending himself from those implying there'll be signs on the beach declaring, "The Atlantic Ocean: Brought to You by Coca-Cola."
There was Ocean City Councilman Vince Gisriel (the only one of seven council members who voted against the deal) asking: "What's next, only one kind of candy bar to be sold on city property? Will we next have the official cereal of Ocean City, or the official athletic shoe?"
Others wondered about unfair competition claims from those such as Pepsi Cola - not to mention visitors to Ocean City events who might want an alternative to Coca-Cola.
Then there was a National Public Radio interview, in which Mathias was asked: "What about the Lincoln Memorial?"
In other words, where is the line drawn on appropriate marriages of municipalities to corporations? Where does a city begin to sell off pieces of itself, of its identity, by opting for corporate dollars in highly visible ways?
"I told the guy from NPR I couldn't comment on the Lincoln Memorial," Mathias said. "We're not looking to put a bottle of Coca-Cola in the Lincoln statue's lap, we're just a resort town with a comfortable quality of life, which we want to maintain.
"The Coca-Cola money's a lot to us. It's a penny on our tax rate. As life has gone on, particularly since the recession of '92, people don't want more taxes or a cut in their services. Somebody gets a little chest pain, he wants the paramedics right away. They hear a noise in their yard, they want the police. But how do you pay for these things when nobody wants to pay more taxes? We thought this filled the bill."
The idea's not entirely new. Atlanta has an official credit card, Buffalo's got an official paint. Los Angeles - where else? - has an official bottled water. Also, Coca-Cola's the official soft drink of New York state parks. But the practice is pretty rare.
More familiar is the deal on various sporting locations. The Largo arena where the Washington Bullets have played most of their games since they fled Baltimore two decades ago has lately been renamed the U.S. Air Arena. Even major football bowls now have corporate names attached to them. Do we wind up, one day, with the new name: the Coca-Cola Ocean City?
"We're not naming any buildings, we're not naming any streets," Mathias says.
"The essence of the community is not changing. I'll tell you the genesis of this idea. Back in the late '40s, Esskay filled a need with boardwalk clocks. They were landmarks, five of them, up to 1990, when they became obsolete. In 1991, they wanted to replace them. I thought, why not look for other corporations that fit into our lifestyle?
"So we went looking for a world-class corporation with a fresh, healthy, youthful, seaside sort of image. We had our director of Parks and Recreation, Tom Perlozzo, look into it. He'd had some experience. He got advertising for the outfield fence at our Little League park. He landed the deal with Coca-Cola."
It's a long way from a sign on a Little League fence. This time, the corporate image grabs a whole town.
Pub Date: 5/01/97