Bottling plant's neighbors fight to keep it, and 40 jobs


Leaders of three Southwest Baltimore community groups are waging a battle to stop the city from spending $5.5 million in federal funds to relocate a dilapidated bottling plant from its current site in the 900 block of W. Baltimore St.

The city wants to pay the plant's relocation costs so the site can be redeveloped with new housing or businesses.

But leaders of neighborhood groups in Poppleton, Union Square and Hollins Market are skeptical that the city will follow through with a redevelopment plan if the plant is moved. They also question the wisdom of relocating the plant because the company may move to Harford County, taking 40 jobs from the city.

Rather than paying the plant's relocation costs, the city should spend the $5.5 to stimulate homeownership by renovating the area's vacant housing, the neighborhood groups maintain.

"This is money ostensibly being spent to help our community, but it's actually being misspent in our community," said Phil Hildebrandt, a member of the Hollins Market Neighborhood Association.

Community leaders have sent letters to city, state and federal elected officials protesting the city's plans and are to meet next week with representatives of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The city has already spent more than $1 million to relocate the plant, which goes by the names New Gold Bottling and Sun Spot Soda.

Earlier this year, federal auditors called the relocation costs "excessive."

Leaders of the neighborhood groups said they were upset because the city did not reveal the relocation costs until several months ago. They also expressed doubts about the city's redevelopment plan for the plant site because the area is already blighted by city-owned vacant lots and dilapidated buildings.

"This has pushed us over the edge," said Mr. Hildebrandt, adding:"We have the feeling that things aren't right here. There's nobody at the helm [at the housing department]. Why would they decide to spend $5 million to move a business that provides 40 jobs out of a neighborhood?"

Bill Toohey, city housing department spokesman, said an agreement to relocate the bottling plant predates the Schmoke administration and the city must abide by it.

"A previous administration committed the city to this in October 1987," when Clarence H. "Du" Burns was mayor, Mr. Toohey said. Because the city had earlier signed the agreement, "there is no turning back," he added.

Mr. Toohey said the $5.5 million cost figure is due to federal regulations requiring the city to pay all relocation costs including the replacement of antiquated bottling equipment.

Clara Fenwick, city planner for the area, said community leaders were told about the relocation plans at least seven years ago, but the $5.5 million cost figure was not determined until about one year ago.

She said the site has long been slated for redevelopment, probably for housing. But she conceded that it has been difficult to get developers to build in the Poppleton area, just west of Martin Luther King Boulevard.

"Poppleton hasn't been the most attractive neighborhood. Developers have tended to go further south," she said.

Community leaders, worried the city won't be able to find a developer once the bottling plant is vacant, cited as examples of city inaction four city-owned crumbling buildings at the corner of the 1000 block of W. Baltimore St.

The vacant buildings, one without a roof or third-floor facade, look as if they had been bombed.

Asked why the buildings have remained vacant, Mrs. Fenwick said several developers have shown interest in renovating them but haven't followed through with plans.

Now the buildings have deteriorated so much that they may have to be demolished, she said.

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