C.J. Huff, superintendent of the Joplin School District, made a point Monday of saying thank you to the Coca-Cola Bottling Co.
When the May 22, 2011, tornado struck, Coca-Cola was in the process of closing a deal on a spec building in the Crossroads Business and Distribution Park that it would use as a new hub for the regional distribution of Coca-Cola products.
Instead of closing the deal, Coca-Cola let the Joplin School District have the building for use as a new campus for 600 East Middle School students.
Huff said he did not know any of that had happened until well after the fact. He said it is an example of what Joplin businesses have done and are doing to help the community that many people never hear about.
“I think the most important thing I can do today is say thank you,’’ Huff said. “And I promise to drink lots of Coke.’’
Ground was broken Monday morning for a new $5.5 million distribution center a few blocks east of the school in the industrial park. The 56,000-square-foot center will open in early 2013.
Joplin’s relationship with the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. goes back 108 years. It has operated in the same location longer than any other business in Joplin. The new center replaces a 40,000-square-foot center at 1301 S. Virginia Ave.
Cole Mashburn, area sales manager for Coca-Cola, said the old center still has a place where horses could be tethered.
“We were here when you got around with a horse and buggy,’’ he said.
Speaker after speaker at Monday’s ceremony praised the company for its response after the May 2011 tornado. In addition to helping the school district, the company provided at least 10 truckloads of bottled drinking water to the community at a time when a boil order was in effect. It also contributed $25,000 to the restoration of Cunningham Park.
Under a tent with red and white stripes, Kevin Shea, a vice president of field operations for Coca-Cola, said he was humbled by and proud of the company’s long-standing relationship with the community.
“It’s what our company is about,” he said. “After the tornado, we saw what Joplin was all about. We truly have a partnership with Joplin in every sense.’’
He said the center’s work force will grow from 55 to 100 employees through consolidation of company operations in Aurora and Fort Scott, Kan.
Gov. Jay Nixon said Coca-Cola’s decision to reinvest in Joplin is an example of the city’s “laser-like focus on economic development’’ since the tornado.
According to the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, approximately 25 new businesses have opened in the city since the tornado. Of the 553 businesses that were destroyed or badly damaged by the tornado, about 85 percent, or 468 of them, have come back.
Forty businesses are not coming back, including 29 general businesses, four medical and dental offices, five day care centers and two apartment complexes.
Nixon said the Coca-Cola center is an example of “a big brand investment that will lead others to invest.’’ He said his attendance at the groundbreaking ceremony sends “a strong signal to other companies that Missouri is ready to expand, and that we are confident in the future of our state.’’
The new center will feature energy-saving skylights for interior illumination and a rain garden that collects storm-water runoff.
Mashburn said the new center will have eight loading docks to improve efficiency. The old property at 13th Street and Virginia Avenue will be listed for sale.
CROSSLAND CONSTRUCTION CO., Columbus, Kan., is the contractor. Bennie Crossland said, “Coca-Cola is investing in Joplin at a time when Joplin really needs it.’’