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As Tampa’s shiny downtown rises, an old flour mill, and history, disappear

Built in 1938 in a gritty, thriving port town, the Ardent Mills flour mill sits on property soon to be developed. Soon the old mill will be torn down to reopen elsewhere, marking an end to downtown’s smokestack era.
The Ardent Mills flour mill, once part of a neighborhood called the Garrison where dockworkers and their families lived, has seen downtown Tampa grow up around it. The old mill, which now sits on valuable property as the city keeps developing, will soon be no more.
The Ardent Mills flour mill, once part of a neighborhood called the Garrison where dockworkers and their families lived, has seen downtown Tampa grow up around it. The old mill, which now sits on valuable property as the city keeps developing, will soon be no more. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Feb. 23|Updated Feb. 23

Tampa has been busy morphing into what it will be next.

Near where longshoremen once worked the banana docks of a gritty port town, sleek residential towers now rise. In a city that once hid its waterfront behind wharves and warehouses, people meander along a picturesque Riverwalk.

Amidst all this sits a last remnant of Tampa’s smokestack past: the old Ardent Mills flour mill.

Some see the Ardent Mills flour mill at 110 S Nebraska Ave. as out-of-synch with Tampa's new look. SKIP O'ROURKE  | Times (2012)
Some see the Ardent Mills flour mill at 110 S Nebraska Ave. as out-of-synch with Tampa's new look. SKIP O'ROURKE | Times (2012)

“You look at it and you look at everything around it and it looks really odd,” said Fred Hearns, curator of Black history at the Tampa Bay History Center. “Like you get in a time capsule and you go back 100 years.”

Not for much longer. The 84-year-old mill — 80,000 square feet on about 3 acres between the downtown skyline and Tampa’s thriving port — has been scooped up by Strategic Property Partners for $13 million, a key step north in its transformative Water Street Tampa development of hotels, condos, apartments and offices.

“I think all of us have recognized, including Ardent Mills, that the city had grown up around that plant and that was not the best use of the property for either them or us,” then-mayor Bob Buckhorn said in 2018 when the deal was clinched.

And so, soon, the daily hum and crank of the mill will go quiet. The gray industrial plant just west of the trendy Channel District neighborhood will disappear, and a new $62 million flour mill and grain storage terminal will open miles away at Port Tampa Bay’s Port Redwing near Apollo Beach.

“We all knew this day was coming — it’s surrounded by so much development,” Hearns said.

“It’s what Tampa used to be,” said Rodney Kite-Powell, historian with the Tampa Bay History Center.

Ships docked at Tampa's port in 1919.
Ships docked at Tampa's port in 1919. [ Courtesy of Port Tampa Bay ]

The mill opened in 1938 in a neighborhood called the Garrison, also the name of an important nearby waterway, Garrison Channel. Garrison is a term for troops stationed in a fortress, a reference to Tampa’s Fort Brooke, which was decommissioned in 1883.

The Garrison was a short walk for dockworkers to the busy port — “not the easiest jobs, but pretty good paying jobs,” said Kite-Powell.

“The banana docks had their own union,” said Hearns, whose great-grandfather was one of the founders of an African Methodist Episcopal church in the Garrison — established in part to counterbalance the drinking establishments there. His grandfather worked the docks.

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Back then, the Hillsborough River and the shipping channels to the bay were about commerce, not pleasant views from high-rise condo balconies. While St. Petersburg may have preserved green space on the water, “we reserved our waterfront for business,” Hearns said. The port’s ships, barges and trains were integral to industries like the mill.

“Tampa was a gritty, working-class industrial city,” said Kite-Powell. “It’s not that long ago that the waterfront was not pretty, but it made money.”

“The city grew up around the port, like a lot of other port cities,” said Wade Elliott, vice president of business development for Port Tampa Bay.

Born in nearby Ybor City, Dennis Reaves remembers his dad visiting the mill’s walk-up counter window in the early 1960s, where residents could buy broken bags of grits and cornmeal.

“You didn’t see cruise ships,” said Reaves, now the flour mill’s administrative manager. “What you saw was a lot of cargo.” Lumber, asphalt blocks, grain and many other goods came through the port.

Tampa's port and the surrounding areas have changed over the years.
Tampa's port and the surrounding areas have changed over the years. [ Port Tampa Bay ]

The mill was sold in the late 1960s or early 1970s and began grinding wheat for flour. In recent years, it was shipping 1.5 million pounds of flour a day to bakeries across Florida, the southeastern United States and the Caribbean. Because there are only a few flour mills in the state, if you’ve eaten a local Cuban sandwich or slice of pizza, there’s a good chance the Tampa mill had a hand in it.

“It is fascinating to know you’re making flour on equipment that’s nearly 100 years old, some of it,” said Michael Jung, assistant plant manager.

It bothered Hearns when local newspapers started referring to the place as the old Warehouse District. “Yes, there were warehouses there,” he said. “But a lot of people called it home.”

Longtime mill workers watched as the area around them scored a hockey arena, an aquarium, its first hard-fought grocery store and a nightlife.

“I remember when there was hardly anybody who lived downtown,” said Jung. “I never thought 20 years ago I would have said ‘let’s get a hotel and stay downtown tonight ... make a weekend of it.’ It was really kind of neat to see that transformation.”

For a time, the mill property was talked about as a well-placed potential stadium site for the Tampa Bay Rays.

What’s next, once mill workers transition to the new facility this year and the old mill is demolished? Lee Schaffler, chief portfolio officer for Strategic Property Partners — a partnership between Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment — said in an email: “We look forward to sharing more details soon.”

In his new digs down at Port Redwing, Jung says he’ll put up old photos from the mill, including one of workers lifting flour bags onto a ship.

Though the old mill no longer fit, some may miss it.

“I kind of like those vestiges of our past being in the way,” said Kite-Powell. “But I certainly understand the economics of it. I understand that its day and its location have passed, and it’s good it can get relocated nearby.”

Hearns would like to see a historic marker at the mill site to mark all that was once there.

“It was just another industry among dozens that were in the Garrison,” he said. “Who knew it would be the last one to leave?”

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