Domino Sugar spruces up Baltimore plant

Water gushes over Domino Sugar's packaging building, washing off grit, fly ash and other gunk — so much of it that the cleaned-up facade is a noticeably lighter shade of brown.

The building had plenty of time to collect whatever the weather and long-gone industry threw its way. It's the first time Domino cleaned it in the 25 years refinery manager Stu FitzGibbon has been there, and it's possibly a first since the plant opened in 1922.


Domino spent decades focusing its spending on the inner workings of its 25-building Baltimore complex — the parts with a direct impact on refining and transporting sugar. Now it's forking out money on beautification, about $250,000 since October.

FitzGibbon sees it as a necessity. As the last manufacturer alongside Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Domino is cheek by jowl with upscale offices and homes, its massive buildings visible to many neighborhoods that put stock in appearances.


"We've had feedback from people in elected positions that the plant really doesn't look pleasant on the outside," he said. "Various and sundry people in the community [said] that they thought the plant was closed. So when we asked why, why would you think that — 'Well, look at the buildings.' … We needed to fix that."

The project is part of Domino's strategy to stay on good terms with neighbors and demonstrate that the business — and not just its familiar neon sign — is, in fact, still quite alive. In addition to spiffing up, Domino is sending officials to community meetings and participating in local events.

"It's not just so much what they're doing with the facility but also what they're doing in the community to remind people that they have several hundred jobs there, and several generations of people who have worked those jobs," said Baltimore City Councilman William H. Cole IV. "It's more than just paint and decorations."

Cole said the plant doesn't have a neighborhood reputation problem to overcome. When he does field complaints about the refinery, it's generally in the form of befuddled questions from newcomers who didn't know what was in their backyard before they moved in. Questions like: What are those lights doing on at night? And why are trains going by at 4 in the morning?

"It happens anywhere you've had residential development in industrial zones," Cole said. "That's been one of the land-use challenges the city has faced as we've seen a lot of these older facilities converted into residential or even commercial uses. … But there is room for everybody."

When Gary Byron went to work at Domino in 1967, the landscape was almost entirely different. Procter & Gamble made soap and other products next door. Bethlehem Steel repaired ships at its Key Highway facility. Allied Chemical processed chrome across the harbor. Produce barges came and went.

Byron could look out a refinery window and see the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon — that's how few tall buildings were in the way.

"It was just industrial," said Byron, the company's dust mitigation manager. "That's all it was."


Now, standing on a pier at the edge of Domino's complex, this is what he sees: the office towers of downtown, Harborplace shops and restaurants, the glassy Legg Mason building in Harbor East, the Ritz-Carlton Residences, waterfront townhouses and sailboats.

These days, Procter & Gamble's former plant houses Under Armour's corporate headquarters. The Allied Chemical site is earmarked for Exelon's new offices. The General Ship Repair Corp. next door is the sole remnant of the massive shipyards that once curled all the way up Key Highway.

Byron sees upsides in that big shift, even if it left Domino in the not always comfortable position of last manufacturer standing. He thinks it makes sense to clean up the property. The snazzy look of the former Procter & Gamble buildings, built in a similar style and nearly as old, drove that point home to him.

"It's a new community now," said Byron, who's helping coordinate the beautification project. "We've got to fit into that."

Terry Hickey, president of the Locust Point Civic Association, said Domino's FitzGibbon got a good reaction from residents when he said the company wanted to spruce up and get more active in the community.

"Everything I've heard so far has been positive," Hickey said.


The first step for Domino's buildings is a thorough cleaning. Back when the waterfront was all industry, "you collected a collage of different, let's say, raw material on your property," Byron said.

Next, contractors will repaint the concrete and fill in masonry gaps in the brick-and-concrete buildings.

Whether anything like this has ever been done before on site seems to have been lost to the mists of time. FitzGibbon isn't aware of any similar cleaning effort before he came to Baltimore, but he knows this is the first since that point.

Domino started with the portions facing the Inner Harbor — at least 600 feet of frontage, Byron estimated. That work, which began last fall, is largely done. Now it's a matter of cleaning up the rest, though that won't be quick.

"This is going to take years," FitzGibbon said. "It's a lot of buildings."

In recent months, Domino also removed derelict pilings from the water, pulled up the flourishing weeds and — on the auditory rather than visual side of improvements — replaced two silencers in its powdered-sugar mills to cut down on high-pitched whistling sounds that neighbors could hear.


Later, Byron hopes to replace windows. The buildings have a patchwork of 91-year-old vintage panes that look every bit their age and newer versions put in when the originals broke. He wants to swap out all the "visually unappealing" ones visible off the property, and he's already been to higher-elevation spots in harbor neighborhoods to figure out which those are.

Grand total: about 300 windows.

FitzGibbon said the refinery is also looking for ways to connect the community with the plant, to "use our facility to tell the story of what we do," though just how is still up in the air. He noted that Redpath Sugar in Toronto, which has the same parent company, opened a museum on its site.

In Baltimore, even the residents who know Domino isn't closed might not realize just how big the operation is.

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The company employs about 500 people on the site and estimates that it helps support about 1,500 other jobs, from contractors to truck drivers to maritime pilots. The plant refines 6.5 million pounds of sugar a day, 14 percent of the nation's total output.

FitzGibbon can't say how much the company ultimately will spend on appearances, since he's getting approval for funding one project at a time. But Byron figures the cost will reach into the millions of dollars.


From FitzGibbon's perspective, that's an investment to avoid problems down the road. If people don't see value in the refinery, then the infrastructure Domino relies on beyond its property — such as rail access and a properly dredged harbor — might not be on such solid ground.

It's not that he sees a reason to worry about that now. FitzGibbon, who came to Baltimore after Domino's Boston plant closed in 1988, is just thinking ahead.

"I'm as optimistic about the future of this plant as I've been in my 33 years [with the company]," he said. "It's receiving capital investment. We've got a good relationship with the unions. I think there's a lot of community support out there. I'm extremely optimistic, but it's something that's going to be an ongoing story."