Not `the real thing'

Stalled: Coca-Cola's plans to build a plant in Howard County have gone little further than road signs.

March 12, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

You can't find a Coke on Coca-Cola Drive.

In fact, you can't find much of anything on this half-mile of asphalt in eastern Howard County except a 122-acre parcel with high earthen mounds that entice dirt-bikers past the chain-link fence.

The name on the green-and-white road signs is all that exists of a proposed $125 million bottling and distribution plant that Coca-Cola Enterprises was to have built in 1993. The project, promoted as one of the largest investments in the county, was to have employed more than 500 people.

But changes in the beverage industry have placed those plans on hold indefinitely, the company says.

Today, the closest building to Coca-Cola Drive is Timbuktu Restaurant and Carryout on Dorsey Road, where owner George M. Anagnostou grows tired of explaining to customers why the road by his back door is named after the Atlanta-based soft drink company.

"Constantly, I'm using the name Coca-Cola Drive," said Anagnostou, irritation evident in his voice. He would like to see the name changed.

Yes, Coke is available at his restaurant, but it is not the beverage of choice.

"We sell twice as much Pepsi as Coke," he said.

His customers are baffled by the name.

"I've been coming here for six years, and I don't know why it is called Coca-Cola Drive," said Donald H. Cilento of Dundalk.

"I kept thinking I'd see some Coca-Cola signs," said his daughter, Patricia Cilento, who lives in Bucks County, Pa.

Richard Story, director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, is confident those Coca-Cola signs will be seen one day, in front of a new bottling plant.

"We're taking the optimistic approach," he said. "They are going to build it."

Coca-Cola Enterprises' 1992 announcement that it had selected Howard County for a plant drew a host of dignitaries, including then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who proclaimed the day "one of the great days in the history of our state."

Coca-Cola officials gave Schaefer and then-County Executive Charles I. Ecker hand-cut lead crystal sculptures of Coke bottles. State officials gave Coca-Cola executives a bas-relief of the state seal to hang in their new offices.

County officials gave them gifts as well, including a road sign for Coca-Cola Drive.

"It was one of those PR things," said Public Works Director James Irvin, recalling the deal the county struck to name the road for the company.

Roads are rarely named for corporations, Irvin said; there are several reasons. For one, it is unusual for a company to own property along an unnamed road. And while developers can usually name roads in their projects whatever they want, as long as the name isn't taken, they rarely name the roads after companies because businesses often move or change their names.

But at the time, Coca-Cola seemed like, well, The Real Thing. The company said it would start construction within six months of the announced decision to build in the county.

But the beverage industry went through a dramatic change with the increasing popularity of bottled fruit drinks, water and tea. The demand for carbonated drinks plummeted, taking the fizz out of plans for the Howard plant.

Coca-Cola Enterprises has a facility in Howard County -- an office on Patuxent Woods Drive in Columbia that employs about 200 people.

Story says developers often call, wanting to buy the Coca-Cola Drive parcel. Not only is the site conveniently located, with its own exit off Route 100, the property has roads and a sidewalk.

But the land isn't for sale, says Kate Whiting, spokeswoman for Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Co. "It's still in our evaluation process."

She says Coca-Cola Co.'s January announcement that it would cut 6,000 jobs is not expected to affect the operations of Coca-Cola Enterprises, a separate company that bottles Coca-Cola products.

The company expects to use the land, and as long it owns the only parcel on Coca-Cola Drive, she says she doesn't believe the name should change.

But Anagnostou is going to try.

Changing a name requires approval of the Howard County Planning Board, but Anagnostou says he has gone to a higher authority: He's asked the governor to change the name.

"I even offered to pay for the signs," he said.

His suggestion?

"I'd like to see it called Timbuktu Drive."

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