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Plans for juice plant squeezed dry

Call it a sweet juice deal gone sour.

In March, Inter-Floridana's chief executive officer, Jacques Bobbe, was talking big plans for sprucing up the old citrus processing plant on Brooksville's south side.

He said his company, based in Orlando, could barely keep up with orders from Europe and Asia. He pledged to add 35,000 square feet to the plant to house a bottling operation for a new juice line.

Production capacity would triple. Employment would more than double to 80 workers, Bobbe predicted.

Hernando County commissioners were supportive. They took the first step toward issuing $5-million in industrial development bonds to finance the expansion of the plant.

But Bobbe's plans have fizzled.

He hasn't pursued the bond financing. The plant has been mostly inactive in recent weeks. And last week, his company got the boot _ literally.

The landlord and original operator of the plant, Citrus Service, got a court order to evict Inter-Floridana after it failed to renew its lease and pay past-due rent, according to a lawsuit.

The suit, filed recently in Hernando County Circuit Court, alleged that Inter-Floridana failed to make good on a promise to buy the plant from Citrus Service and owed more than $700,000 in rent.

Inter-Floridana signed a lease and option-to-buy agreement with Citrus Service in 1992. The lease expired Sept. 30 of this year.

Something else has expired: Inter-Floridana's license to operate a citrus processing plant. The company failed to reregister and renew its license by the annual deadline, July 31, said Marge Rose, administrative assistant in the citrus license and bond office of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Citrus Service President Bert Roper, who has owned the plant for more than 20 years, reactivated his license to operate the Brooksville plant, Rose said.

Bobbe did not return several phone messages Friday.

Roper said the plant was not operating when he took it over last week and declined to talk about why Inter-Floridana didn't stay current on its rent payments or buy the plant.

Roper, 71, said he had hoped to sell the plant and retire but was ready to rebuild the business. He said he didn't know what contracts Inter-Floridana had.

"It's an uphill battle, but I intend to climb the mountain," he said in a phone interview from his office in Winter Garden.

Currently, a crew of about five workers is cleaning the plant and loading tankers with citrus juice concentrate. Full-scale processing should begin the first week of December, Roper said.

At full production, the plant will employ about 20 workers, all local. Some Inter-Floridana employees will be hired back. Others won't. Bill Brayton, who managed the plant when it was run by Citrus Service, is now running the operation.

Roper said he plans to purchase additional equipment, such as a freeze tunnel, so the plant can focus more on processing ready-to-serve orange juice. He is also thinking about processing juice from organically grown oranges.

For years, the 60-year-old plant produced only orange juice concentrate. "They weren't producing a successful enough product," Roper said.

In fact, there had been problems with product quality. More than a year ago, a Winter Haven customer, Florida's Own Juice, sued Inter-Floridana over what it claimed was a bad batch of juice from the Brooksville plant.

Jerry Cannon, general manager of Florida's Own Juice, said Friday he couldn't comment because of pending litigation.

Roper said the suit will not affect him. "The lawsuit is between Inter-Floridana and Florida's Own," he said.

Roper also said he can operate the plant without the county's help and has no interest in seeking bond financing.

The state approved a $5-million bond allocation to the county earlier this year, but Inter-Floridana didn't take the necessary steps _ such as finding a lender to buy the bonds _ to continue the process, County Attorney Bruce Snow said. As a result, the county never issued the bonds.

If the $5-million allocation isn't used by Nov. 15, it will automatically return to the state's pool of industrial development revenue bonds, without penalty to the county, Snow said.