Drop in the bucket

January 30, 2004

BALTIMORE HAS good water, but that doesn't mean the city should tap it to make a marketing statement.

Officials are seeking bids to bottle and deliver city water back to the city under the brand Clearly Baltimore. It plans to offset the cost of bottling and distributing by selling its product at city events, municipal buildings and wherever else the water fountains may be broken. Bottled water is a growth industry, but the city isn't interested in profit, just promotion.

The bid put out to prospective bottlers aims for the enterprise to break even. So why go to the trouble? For all this work (and what about dry years?), the city should get something besides another tourist tchotchke - and a common one at that.

The idea isn't new, even to Baltimore. Kansas City, Mo., Milwaukee, Chicago and Boynton Beach, Fla., are selling their municipal supply. Seattle considered it in 1998 as a way to hold water utility rates down, but decided distribution and advertising costs would eat all the profit. Austin, Texas, couldn't break even, so it closed the spigot last June. Charm City's own City Council requested a look-see in 1999, but the project went dry then, perhaps because a drought forced the city to use less-palatable Susquehanna waters to fill in.

No doubt, water is a necessity - just ask the school kids who are drinking from bottles right now as officials work to revamp lead-contaminated pipes and fountains. The district is shelling out $50,000 a month for replacement water.

If the city really wants to get into the business of bottling the stuff, the least it could do would be to sell it to the school system at cost - or less. That would ease a little budget pain on North Avenue, not to mention offer plenty of believable local marketing for the product.

If its bottling plans fall through again, though, the city might consider just slapping its new Jones Falls-picture labels on store-bought Giant-brand bottles. The supermarket chain has been peddling Baltimore tap water - with a little more processing - for more than a decade.

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