County, Coca-Cola officials deny plans to switch sites


Despite a published report that a $60 million Coca-Cola US syrup manufacturing plant slated for Harford County will be built instead in Howard County, company and Harford officials continued to deny Friday that any such decision had been made.

Katherine Whiting, public affairs director for Coca-Cola Enterprises Northeast, the regional bottling company for the soft drink corporation, denied a report in the Daily Record Friday that said Coca-Cola's syrup-making division, Coca-Cola USA, would put its plant in Howard.

The rumor followed an announcement Thursday that Coca-Cola Enterprises Northeast -- which is based in Columbia -- had agreed to build a $100 million bottling and distribution plant in Dorsey in Howard County after the Howard County Council agreed to reduce water and sewer hook-up fees for the new plant by $5 million.

"I can't control what they print and what they don't print, but the PTC report is incorrect," Mrs. Whiting said Friday. She said she was speaking for both Coca-Cola companies. "At this point Coca-Cola USA is exploring options, and no decision regarding that [the location of the syrup plant] has been made."

She would not say whether locating the syrup plant in Howard County was one of the options being considered. The two divisions of the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. usually operate separately.

But a press release Mrs. Whiting issued Thursday night said Coca-Cola Enterprises Northeast would announce at an 11 a.m. news conference tomorrow the site for a new "production and distribution facility" to be located in Howard County.

When asked what the new plant would produce, Mrs. Whiting said, "Coca-Cola products."

Asked if that meant syrup, she said, "I'll be happy to discuss that with you Monday."

Joseph G. Svatos, president of the company that owned the Howard County site until Coke bought it Friday, said he learned of Coke's plans to build the syrup plant there as the companied studied site issues in depth.

He said it was during that process that he and Howard County officials learned that Coca-Cola would need 1 1/2 million more gallons of water than it originally sought -- water apparently that will be needed in the syrup operation.

Coca-Cola USA, which supplies soft drink syrup for soda fountains, has an option to buy 29 acres in the Riverside Business Park in Harford County, said John Dixon, marketing manager for BLC Properties, which owns the business park.

"All I know is they're still under contract to buy the property, and they've spent significant sums studying the site and designing a facility, all of which are non-refundable," Mr. Dixon said.

Harford administrators were puzzled by the rumors the syrup plant, which is to replace a plant on East Fort Avenue in Baltimore, would not come to Harford after all.

On Friday, James D. Fielder, Harford's economic development director, said, "I don't know what the hell is going on. We've been working with the syrup division for 14 months. As recently as 3 p.m. yesterday [Thursday] the real estate division said they were still interested in the Harford site."

He said the company had been expected to settle the land transaction in July, but had extended its option. Since then, however, he said Coca-Cola USA had completed 80 percent of the engineering work for the Riverside site, and submitted plans to Harford's Development Advisory Committee for review.

"We did make numerous presentations trying to get the bottling plant here," said Mr. Fielder.

But the county's water supply could not meet the demands of a bottling plant, and Coca-Cola Enterprises Northeast had decided its plant needed to be located between Baltimore and Washington.

Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said she was not surprised that she and other county officials were somewhat in the dark Friday.

"These days until a plant makes a final decision, you don't plan on it coming," she said. "Companies are continuing to re-evaluate and extend their options until they're almost ready to put the spade in the ground."

Howard County officials also said they did not know whether the syrup-making plant would be built in their county.

"I have a lot of suspicion, but nothing in writing," said Beverly Wilhide, an aide to Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

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