Soft Drinks and Hardball HOWARD COUNTY


There is no question that having a Coca-Cola bottling and syrup plant built in Howard County is a boon to the state and

local economy. Maryland and Howard economic development officials have fought hard to get the plant located here. Last fall, we supported previous efforts to reduce by $5 million a fee the company must pay for its heavy use of water. At that time, it appeared Coke was prepared to back out of the project unless that condition was met.

Now, however, the county faces another crisis over the construction of a waste-water treatment facility for Coke. Company representatives told county officials recently they need 15 more acres to build their plant -- and want the county to pay the cost, which could run to $2 million.

Having been handed this problem, the county must act without the haste that characterized the initial negotiations. Whereas we winced -- as did the governor -- when County Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass seemed cavalier about scuttling the project last fall, we're inclined to agree with her cautionary stance on this latest snag.

To be sure, the $100 million Coke facility means hundreds of jobs and millions in property and income tax dollars. With other jurisdictions and states competing over the shrinking pie of expanding businesses, the county can't afford to jeopardize this project. However, neither can Coke expect the county to eat all its mistakes as it experiments with combining a bottling and syrup operation in one location. Coke officials were well aware that their waste-water treatment needs were not typical of other county businesses and that a pre-treatment facility would have to be built.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker says Coke's position is that the county should pay all the cost for land acquisition because businesses normally use the county's sewage treatment plant to process their waste for a fee. But that argument doesn't wash.

Coke's treatment needs are not typical and were known to require a special facility that could handle the specific problems involving syrup pre-treatment and processing. Furthermore, it was Coke's mistake in assuming that the land it had already acquired was sufficient. If the county must strike a deal on this with Coca-Cola, it should be one that places most of the onus on the company.

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