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Dunedin Coca-Cola plant to shutter in May after yearslong delay

As part of the closing, which was announced in 2020 and originally planned for late 2021, the food giant will lay off 198 employees.
 
Coca-Cola's Dunedin plant will shut down at the end of May, nearly 2½ years after an initial closing date announced in 2020, the company said last week. It's been a producer of juice and jobs since the 1940s and a connection to the city’s bygone era as a citrus powerhouse.
Coca-Cola's Dunedin plant will shut down at the end of May, nearly 2½ years after an initial closing date announced in 2020, the company said last week. It's been a producer of juice and jobs since the 1940s and a connection to the city’s bygone era as a citrus powerhouse. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 16|Updated Feb. 16

When Coca-Cola first announced plans to shut down its Dunedin plant in 2020, Brian Nicholson was already approaching retirement age. But the maintenance planner had already spent more than a third of his life working at the plant, and with the company saying it would close the doors at the end of 2021, he figured he’d stick it out and collect a severance package.

Some of Nicholson’s colleagues left soon after the announcement, uprooting their families to take jobs in other states. Then 2021 came and went, and the plant stayed open, hiring new employees to fill the vacancies. By the time Nicholson retired in late 2022, he estimated half the staff had been hired in the previous six months.

“I said, ‘To hell with it, I can’t wait any longer,’” Nicholson said of his retirement.

At a Super Bowl party last weekend, an old colleague who still worked at the plant gave him the news: The end, finally, had come. The plant on San Christopher Drive — a producer of juice and jobs since the 1940s and a connection to the city’s bygone era as a citrus powerhouse — will officially close in May, the company announced last week. The closing date is nearly 2½ years after it was originally set to shut down.

Coca-Cola will begin laying off the plant’s 198 workers on April 5 and will shut it down on May 31, the company said in a federally mandated notice posted Feb. 6, though some employees could stay on into the summer to help close the facility.

Though the company’s timeline for closing the plant changed, what will come next hasn’t, a company spokesperson said. It will still move operations to a plant in Bartow operated by a third-party co-packer, Peace River Citrus.

The move will be done by July, the spokesperson said in a statement provided by email. As to whether the company would still offer transfers to Bartow or other Coca-Cola facilities, as it said it would in 2020, the spokesperson said the Dunedin employees “are encouraged to apply and be considered for jobs that they are qualified to perform within the Coca-Cola system and at other third-party co-packer locations.”

The company did not answer questions about the yearslong delay in closing the plant. But Nicholson said the company seemingly underestimated how long it would take to transfer or duplicate processing equipment from the Dunedin plant, which produced the orange juice for McDonald’s restaurants across the United States, to the Bartow facility.

The plant’s history is intertwined with that of Dunedin, which was still covered in orange groves in the early 20th century. It was opened in 1945 by B.C. Skinner, the son of Lee Bronson Skinner, who was among Dunedin’s early settlers and citrus barons. In the 1930s, B.C. Skinner had developed a way to make orange juice concentrate, and he built the plant in the 1940s to produce a new product, frozen concentrate, according to the Dunedin Historical Museum.

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Many of Dunedin’s groves were paved over as the city grew, and most of those that remained died off after a 1964 freeze. But the plant, which Coca-Cola took over in 1988, kept making juice and connected the city’s modern era to its citrus-scented past.

Its future is uncertain. Bob Ironsmith, Dunedin’s director of economic and housing development, said he doesn’t expect the property to go on the market until late this year, and he didn’t want to speculate on what might be next for the industrial-zoned land. The city will look to help find jobs for the laid-off employees, he said, and to recognize the plant’s and Coca-Cola’s ties to the city’s history.

“We’re going to be working closely with them,” he said. “We certainly want to be sensitive to what happens with that property, and Coke knows that.”

The news that the plant will finally close elicits mixed emotions, Nicholson said — over the plant’s last few years, and over the end of an era.

“It’s frustrating for a lot of people, but it’s also the sentimental part for a lot of people, the emotional part,” he said. “It’s a big change for the city.”