FOR 50 YEARS, the 120-by-70-foot "Domino Sugars" sign has been an icon that has defined Baltimore. When you see its 650 neon tubes aglow over South Baltimore, you know you're home, hon.
The Domino plant, which employs about 500 people on a 20-acre site, is the last reminder that Baltimore once had a dozen refineries processing imported sugar cane. This relic's future is now being determined in board rooms in London and Florida, where the sale of the whole Domino operation is being negotiated.
These are not sweet times for the sugar industry. Despite record-low prices, government-subsidized overproduction is ripe. The nation's largest refiner, Imperial Sugar, has gone bankrupt. Domino, too, is losing money on every pound it sells. That's why London-based Tate & Lyle wants to sell it to Florida Crystals, a rapidly growing empire owned by a family that once was Cuba's top sugar grower.
When the Domino plant was opened in 1920, it was a state-of-the-art refinery. It is still regarded as an efficient plant. But would it fit into Florida Crystals' plans?
It would be a terrible blow to Baltimore's shrinking manufacturing base to lose this industrial landmark.
But the Domino plant's fate is linked to far broader decisions that ultimately will be made in the U.S. Congress.
Chief among them is the future of government sugar subsidies, which cost taxpayers nearly $2 billion a year.
So even if Florida decides to keep Baltimore's Domino plant going, Washington may start a chain of events that leads to its conversion into a hotel or luxury apartments.
Enjoy the sign while it's still there, hon.