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PURE GOLD: FLORIDA CITRUS // The Citrus Tower is still standing tall

First in an occasional series.

Greg Homan can undress an orange or grapefruit with the best. Watch him toil: Gripping a long, sharp knife in one hand and a yellow globe of ripe grapefruit in the other, he starts cutting at the north pole and works his way south, inch by inch, latitude by latitude. When he is finished, the peel is about a foot long, and the fruit is bare naked.

"Try this," he says, as we stand in his father-in-law's small grove near the Central Florida community known as Clermont. He hands me half a Ruby Red, which turns out to be as sweet as a morning kiss. Knife flashing, he peels me a navel orange, which is to die for. "How about this?" A Hamlin, another orange species, disappears into my craw. Juicy pleasure.

For many years Homan was in the citrus business. In the 1980s, three hard freezes wiped out thousands of acres in what once was our state's citrus belt. Farmers went belly up and sold their broken groves to developers. If farmers had money, and if citrus was in their blood, they moved south, to warmer climates, and replanted.

Like most other farmers, Homan lacked that kind of capital. He stayed in Clermont and began growing buildings on bare ground that once produced orange trees. He buys and sells and develops commercial properties.

"I need development to stay alive," he says now. "But what I love is citrus."

That is how he ended up owning what may be Florida's strangest tourist attraction, the Citrus Tower.

Showcasing an industry

The Citrus Tower was built in 1956 to showcase Florida's citrus industry. Billed as one of the wonders of the world, it rose 225 feet above a 300-foot hill. It towered over Central Florida.

From the top of the Citrus Tower, a visitor could see eight counties and 35 miles, almost all of it planted in oranges and grapefruit. There were little towns here and there, but mostly there was an ocean of citrus trees, 17-million by one farm agent's estimate.

When I was a boy, I looked forward to my family's travels through Central Florida because of the citrus sea. There were hills _ a novelty for a Miami boy _ and on every hill there was a grove. We moved to Florida from Chicago in 1952, and the idea of picking our own citrus, oranges especially, seemed something of a miracle. We felt we were in the Promised Land.

"Stop!" my mother would shout at my dad. "Let's pick some oranges." He never stopped, mostly because we would have been stealing.

In the late winter and early spring, a drive along U.S. 27 in Central Florida was like traveling through a perfume factory. The delicate fragrance of the blossoms penetrated even the closed windows of my dad's jalopies.

Even now when I tour the back roads near Lake Okeechobee, in the new citrus belt, I turn off my air conditioner and open wide my windows when trees are in blossom. Breathing deeply the bouquet, I know that surely Florida is the Garden of Eden.

When it comes to citrus, I am a hopeless romantic. I picture the Spaniards, who brought oranges to North America, clanking through the woods in their armor, spitting seeds. I envision the Seminoles years later tending the Spanish groves born from those seeds. On winter mornings, I like to open my back door, lean out and pick a Hamlin orange for breakfast. When I travel, I am one of those people who likes to stop at roadside stands for free juice.

Although I have three kinds of citrus trees in my yard, and my neighbors are generous with their backyard fruit, I am always coming home with mesh bags of oranges and grapefruits. Can't help myself.

Elevator to the sky

"Want to go to the top of the tower?" Greg Homan asks. Of course I do. When I was a kid, I always wanted to stop at the Citrus Tower, but my family was always in a hurry to get somewhere else.

We board the elevator _ "the elevator to the sky," according to the old ads _ and take it 22 stories to the top. It's a cool day with a nice breeze, and the windows are open. Three or four other people have paid the $3 admission and come up for a look.

Homan is tall and athletic at age 41. He was born in Ohio, but grew up in Clermont almost in the shadow of the tower, which was, and remains, the dominant building on the landscape. His family always took their out-of-town guests to the tower. As a boy, Homan would gaze down and find his house, and the houses of his friends, and his school, and maybe the lakes where he tried to catch largemouth bass.

"That's Lake Minnehaha. Over there's Lake Minneola. Can you see the big lake way over there? I mean, a really big lake. That's Apopka, second biggest lake in the state."

I tell Homan how much I like the view.

"It used to be better when there was citrus as far as you could see. I like the view _ don't misunderstand me. It's still beautiful. But there's just not the same amount of citrus."

Enter the Mouse

A visitor to today's Citrus Tower looks down upon strip shopping centers, gas stations and new developments. Thousand Oaks is the name of one. There's Polo Park East and Eagle Ridge. On a clear day, looking toward the southeast, a sharp-eyed visitor can pick out Cinderella's Castle.

Disney World, of course, changed the Florida tourist industry forever. Suddenly, little Mom-and-Pop attractions like the Citrus Tower seemed less appealing. The Florida Turnpike all the while was routing people away from the Citrus Tower on U.S. 27, once the state's major north-south road. In the pre-turnpike, pre-Disney says, 400,000 visitors made tower pilgrimages every year. Now the parking lot is pretty much empty.

"I'm not sure why people still come here, to tell the truth," Homan says. "I think they do because they came as kids. The tower is unique, and you do get a great view. Go anywhere in the U.S., and people have heard about the Citrus Tower."

Fifteen months ago, Homan and a partner, Bob Thompson, bought the Citrus Tower. Initially, they were more interested in the 14 acres of commercially zoned property that came with it. They plan new shops and restaurants.

Both fell back in love with the tower. They have repainted it and replaced broken windows. They have revamped the gift shop and the restaurant in the lobby.

In December, they celebrated its 40th anniversary. They sponsored a free carnival and a 26-minute fireworks show. "That's five minutes longer than anything Disney has even dreamed of," Greg Homan says. More than 25,000 people showed up.

Visitors took the elevator to the top of the tower and oohed and ahhed at the view. Children threw pennies into the parking lot, and teenagers tried to spit, but it was a windy day, and it was hard to hit anyone below.

There are still some nice groves visible from the Citrus Tower, including some newly planted ones. Homan, as romantic about the citrus sea as anyone, tries to be optimistic, but he finds it difficult.

"The citrus industry really doesn't exist here anymore," he says. "It's gone. I know people who try and try to grow citrus now, but it seems to be too cold, and sooner or later the trees freeze, and the farmers run out of money replanting and replanting. They think it's a cycle, that one of these days it will be warm again, but I don't know. They refuse to believe that the world has tilted, that things have changed forever."