DUNEDIN — Since opening in the 1940s, the plant on San Christopher Drive has produced everything from orange juice concentrate for World War II troops overseas to peels that ended up in perfume and cattle feed.
For years, orange juice containers sold at McDonald’s restaurants across the country came with the label “Made in Dunedin, FL.” When Coca-Cola Foods took over the plant in 1988 from H.P. Hood Inc., the conglomerate’s juice production continued the city’s citrus legacy, long after the groves that shaped Dunedin had disappeared.
Last week, Coca-Cola confirmed the end of an era with plans to shut down its Dunedin operation and consolidate manufacturing at Peace River Citrus Products’ renovated facility in Bartow set to open in 2022. A Coca-Cola spokesperson said the 193 Dunedin employees have until the end of 2021 to transition into new jobs and could be offered an opportunity to transfer to the Bartow plant or other Coca-Cola locations.
The heavy expenses required to maintain the 75-year-old facility contributed to the merger, according to Coca-Cola.
“It’s part of our history, so it’s really hard when you have such a great community partner that’s leaving,” Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said. “Unfortunately they made a business decision and we were not included in that.”
Officials with the city of Dunedin and Pinellas County Economic Development are scheduled to meet with representatives from Coca-Cola on Feb. 24 to discuss the transition.
Bujalski said her goal is to gather more insight on Coca-Cola’s intentions for the property and see how the city could be included in the planning.
“We would work with them to try to look for incentive dollars to attract someone to come and take it over and provide jobs,” Bujalski said. “Maybe it’s manufacturing, maybe it’s technical. It’s just creating the partnership, facilitating everyone coming to the table and trying to determine what’s best for the community."
Before the closure was announced, the Dunedin History Museum was preparing to ask Coca-Cola to collaborate on an effort to submit the property to the Florida Historical Site Map and eventually the National Register of Historic Places, according to Vinnie Luisi, the museum’s executive director.
Luisi said the building has remained virtually unchanged since the 1940s. When he showed a photo from 1946 of the plant’s cafeteria to employees during a recent presentation on the history of citrus manufacturing, the room erupted in laughter.
“When I went back later to the cafeteria, it was identical, the same Art Deco style, aluminum, exactly the same as it looked in 1946,” Luisi said.
Much of Dunedin was covered in orange groves at the turn of the 20th Century. In 1945, one of the local industry’s champions, L.B. Skinner, built the current facility after his previous operation was destroyed in a fire, Luisi said.
But over the years, Dunedin’s groves were paved for urban development. After a devastating freeze in 1964, most of the remaining groves never recovered. But the orange has remained an emblem of the city, seen painted on walls and mailboxes.
Today, Luisi said there is only one place that is a tangible remnant of that legacy.
“The orange stands are gone, the citrus groves are gone," Luisi said. "That building represents the last standing historical marker of Dunedin’s orange history.”