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Seafood plant to open in Tampa

A decades-old abandoned dairy in Tampa that once employed hundreds of people could soon get new life as a seafood processing plant with 400 new jobs.

Sometime today, Canadian investors who own interests in seafood plants in Pinellas County are planning to complete their purchase of the former Borden Inc. dairy, a sprawling facility off Lois Avenue near Tampa Stadium.

Within six months, the investors are planning to turn the abandoned factory into a seafood processing and food distribution plant that could eventually employ about 400 people, said Rand Gray, who is slated to become president of the new Florida Seafood Inc.

"Florida has been good to us," Gray said. "When we were looking for a way to expand we saw this plant had been sitting idle. With the way it is laid out, the size and the location, it met our needs."

The Canadian investors, led by the Katsoulis family of seafood brokers in Montreal and their Groupe La Mer, also have an interest in John's Pass Distribution in Madeira Beach. The family also has or had interests in several other seafood companies throughout West Florida.

"This is going to be our main distribution center," Gray said. "The other (companies) are going to continue to do business as they have in the past."

Gray said the new Tampa plant will primarily process and distribute seafood. But it also will distribute other foods to wholesale customers ranging from restaurants to grocery stores throughout the country.

Hiring will begin in August at the earliest, Gray said, and will probably be done at the plant, located at 4010 N Lois Ave. Based on salaries at seafood plants the Katsoulis family operates in Pinellas, pay would begin at $6 an hour or more, Gray said.

Gray said Florida Seafood still needs regulatory approval for the plant and for renovation work there, but doesn't think it will be a problem. City of Tampa officials did not return a reporter's phone calls Tuesday afternoon.

The hulking dairy facility has been desolate since SunState Dairy & Food Products Co. filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February 1992 and put nearly 300 people out of work.

SunState, created by former Borden managers in November 1990, had leased the plant from Borden and produced milk, ice cream and other products with the Borden label for sale throughout Florida. Before that, Ohio-based Borden had operated the plant itself and had once employed nearly 400 people.

After SunState went out of business, Borden began considering selling the property, said Borden spokesman Nicholas Iammartino.

Iammartino said he could provide no details about the sale late Tuesday, but did confirm that Borden was in the process of selling it.

_ Times researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

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