Coke plant may be recycled as 'museum service center' Proposal: Officials of three of Baltimore's most popular attractions want to convert the Coca-Cola syrup plant in Locust Point into a staging facility for their exhibits.

Urban Landscape

December 25, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

AN AGING Coca-Cola syrup plant in southern Baltimore would be reborn as a "museum service center" for three of Baltimore's most popular tourist attractions -- the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the Baltimore Museum of Industry -- if the owners of the soft drink company accept a proposal submitted to them this year.

Directors of the three attractions say they need space away from their main operations to design and build exhibits, store artifacts, and, in the aquarium's case, raise fish, frogs and other creatures.

They have proposed to join forces to create one large service center to meet their needs and would like to locate it inside Coca-Cola's soon-to-close syrup plant at 1215 E. Fort Ave. in Locust Point.

"The Coca-Cola plant is in an ideal location, offers enough space for present and future needs and is obsolete for modern manufacturing purposes," said Dennis Zembala, executive director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

"The space also could accommodate other museums' needs for low-cost storage and exhibit fabrication," Zembala said. "Ultimately, we believe the project would generate 35 to 50 jobs and would enhance other development in the Locust Point neighborhood."

Built before World War II, the sprawling facility is being replaced by a $60 million syrup plant that Coca-Cola opened this year in Allentown, Pa.

The Atlanta-based soft drink maker sought proposals last summer from companies or groups that might have wished to acquire the Fort Avenue property, which has 274,043 square feet of space on 9.4 acres, and set Oct. 31 as the deadline for bids.

Coca-Cola representatives have declined to say how many bids they received or who expressed interest. Zembala said his group was formed and submitted its proposal in response to the offering. He said the plant would benefit "not only our institutions but the entire Baltimore museum community" and the city's tourism development initiative.

"A joint museum service center would be able to serve all of the city's museums with badly needed space for exhibit design and fabrication, conservation and restoration shops, climate- controlled storage areas and back office space," he said. "This collaboration would allow all the entities, particularly smaller museums, to have access to higher quality services at lower costs than they presently can afford. It will also provide a permanent home for these functions, thereby reducing damage to collections and eliminating the costs of moving from one temporary location to another, as has been the case in the past."

Of the three attractions, the industrial museum at 1415 Key Highway is closest to the Coca-Cola plant. The science center at 601 Light St. and the National Aquarium at 501 E. Pratt St. are less than a mile from the Fort Avenue property.

The nonprofit consortium has asked Coca-Cola to donate the plant in exchange for a tax write-off. Coca-Cola representatives have indicated that they want to sell the building rather than give it away. They say that Coca-Cola recently donated 4 acres in South Baltimore for recreational use by Little League teams and that the best use for the syrup plant would be industrial activity that creates manufacturing jobs.

"The important thing for this section of town is to get people working," said Gregory Masi of Carey Winston Co., one of two Maryland real estate firms representing Coca-Cola. Ideally, he said, the seller wants to turn the property over to a buyer that will create as many jobs as possible for the community.

The syrup plant employed about 125 people as of last summer. Coca-Cola has been gradually closing the plant during the past 18 months and was expected to close it permanently by Wednesday.

When they sought proposals, Coca-Cola representatives indicated that they wanted to complete the sale by the end of this year. Yesterday, Masi referred questions about the status of the sale to another broker, Claude Gregory of Financial and Realty Services LLC in Bethesda. Gregory could not be reached, and Coca-Cola's offices were closed for the holiday.

Zembala said he is optimistic that Coca-Cola will accept his group's proposal because he believes the proposed service center would be "an outstanding way to revitalize a facility that has been a part of the regional economy for decades."

Besides the 35 to 50 jobs that would be created, he said, opportunities might exist for public programs that would attract visitors to the site and to commercial establishments nearby -- potentially creating spinoff jobs.

"We truly believe the proposed museum service center could become an important element in the next phase of Baltimore's renaissance as a cultural and tourist center," he said.

Mitchell Gold, a vice president of IRC Real Estate Services, has been working with the museums on their proposal. He said the three attractions would take about 125,000 square feet in the Coca-Cola plant, leaving room for other occupants, such as the American Visionary Art Museum and the B&O Railroad Museum.

Gold added that the consortium would be happy to keep the Coca-Cola name on the property or perhaps name it the Coca-Cola Museum Service Center.

If the group is unable to gain control of the Fort Avenue property, he said, it might seek other sites for a service center.

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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