Coca-Cola USA yesterday informed 125 local employees of plans to build a $60 million plant in Pennsylvania, a move that seriously jeopardizes the future of its 73-year-old syrup-making plant in South Baltimore.
While Coke stopped short of saying it would close the 1215 E. Fort Ave. plant, that is the expected result of the Atlanta-based soft drink maker's decision to complete a facility in Allentown, Pa., by the end of 1997.
"Obviously this will have a big impact on the jobs in Baltimore," said Ben Deutsch, a Coca-Cola spokesman. "Although we can't say at this time what our definite plans are."
He added that some Baltimore workers will be given the opportunity to relocate to Allentown after the 240,000-square-foot plant is completed.
Neither state nor city economic development officials, however, appeared aware of Coca-Cola's decision to build a plant in Pennsylvania prior to yesterday.
"We haven't been in contact with Coca-Cola for some time," said Barbara Bonnell, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency.
"We will begin a process immediately to establish a dialogue with them, and we will certainly do everything we can to see that Coke's Baltimore presence remains," said James T. Brady, secretary of the state's Department of Business and Economic Development.
When McCormick & Co. threatened to move a distribution operation with roughly the same number of jobs to Pennsylvania earlier this year, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mr. Brady personally oversaw negotiations to retain them and provided the Sparks-based spice maker with an incentive package valued at $20 million.
Dr. James D. Fielder, the department's assistant secretary, said he had contacted Coke roughly four months ago about a potential move, but the company said it had made no final decision.
Coke's decision to relocate its syrup operation out of the city perpetuates a trend among manufacturers over the past decade, a period in which Baltimore has lost more than a third of its manufacturing jobs. The city's average monthly manufacturing employment base stood at 36,300 as of December 1994, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Coke intends to review operations over the next 12 to 16 months before deciding the fate of the local plant, Mr. Deutsch said.
The Pennsylvania facility also will affect a company syrup plant in Nashua, N.H., employing 75.
"A lot of these people here won't be able to go to Allentown,"
said Harold DeShields, a 53-year-old temporary laborer and machine operator at Coke's Fort Avenue plant. "A lot of them live in the neighborhood and don't have cars."
Brian K. McHale, a state delegate whose district includes the Fort Avenue plant, said he believed until recently that "there was a glimmer of hope they would stay," referring to Coca-Cola's $3 million investment in its local plant that began last December.
Pennsylvania, which has been aggressive in pursuing Starbucks Corp., McCormick and others, provided Coca-Cola with an incentive package worth $4.8 million.
The new plant is expected to employ between 70 and 80 people.
"Tax cuts, a job-friendly budget and regulatory relief are creating a climate where employers can create jobs," said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge in a statement.
The syrup operation's move to Pennsylvania isn't expected to have any effect on a planned $100 million bottling operation in the Hanover section of Howard County, announced three years ago but indefinitely postponed last August.
"We are committed to that site and committed to building in Maryland," said Katherine Whiting, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc., the Atlanta firm that bottles the majority of the syrup maker's products.
Ms. Whiting added that the company has not yet revised its timetable to begin construction of that 650,000-square-foot plant, however, which is slated to employ 500.