Tropicana continues to grow roots in Bradenton

cschelle@bradenton.comMay 19, 2013 

They say in Hershey, Pa., the air smells of chocolate as you make your way to HersheyPark and the chocolate plant. The air in Bradenton is even sweeter as citrus scents waft through the air as drivers near the Tropicana plant off of U.S. 301.

As drivers continue into Bradenton, they are greeted by the Tropicana box cars and a whistling train that proclaims, yes, you're in the land of Tropicana.

As one of Manatee County's top 10 employers, Bradenton's economy is juiced by the 1,100 workers at the plant, 850 13th Ave E. Tropicana is set to squeeze out more revenue with a major campus renovation. That renovation recently got a significant push when the Florida Legislature passing the Manufacturing Competitiveness Act to streamline the plant's redevelopment. The legislation, if the Governor doesn't veto it, would allow Tropicana to bypass site plan approval because each building is incorporated with a master general development plan.

"For counties like Manatee County, the Manufacturing Competitiveness Act provides for streamlined permitting at the state level," said Steve Lezman, senior director of public affairs at PepsiCo., the parent company of Tropicana. The same cannot be said for Tropicana's Fort Pierce plant because St. Lucie County lacks the streamlined permitting process, called a Local Manufacturing Development Program, that Manatee County has built in.

"Manatee County is probably on the leading edge in the state when it comes to streamlining permits," Lezman said.

Last year Tropicana Manufacturing filed to renew its master plan with Manatee County. Tropicana has 183 acres in unincorporated Manatee County while the remaining 102 acres reside in the city of Bradenton. In the original plan in 1990, the county approved Tropicana building a maximum of 4 million square feet, but every time the company wanted to build another building shown on its master plan, the company had to embark on a lengthy approval process for site plans, landscape, parking and additional building requirements that had already been spelled out.

Now that those basic areas are met and agreed upon, Tropicana can at any time request a building permit on its current campus, which features 2.3 million of building and plant space.

In 2012, Tropicana completed a $4 million, 36,000-square-foot plant designed to switch from cardboard to plastic packaging. The company also announced only Florida oranges would be used in its Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice, which prompted the latest talks for the master plan as Tropicana sought to add 1.67 million square feet of additional building space needed to process the Florida oranges.

Details about its plans for the coming year are staying under wrap -- which buildings will come online, and if any more people will be hired -- to avoid disclosing anything to the competition, Lezman said. Coca-Cola announced this month that it is making a move into Florida, including spending $2 billion to support the planting of 25,000 acres of new orange groves in the state.

Tropicana has no plans to leave its Bradenton home and will continue to invest in its Florida operations.

"The plant in Bradenton has been here for over 60 years," he said. "It's one of our anchor facilities, and it's important this plant remains competitive in the industry."

Tropicana is finding ways to maintain its Bradenton roots by parterning with other businesses in the county. Berry Plastics provides bottle caps for Tropicana, and signed a lease with Benderson Development to open in November a 120,000-square-foot distribution center on U.S. 301 near University Parkway, as the juice maker changes production on its bottling operations.

If there's an orange to be sold, chances are it's in Tropicana's hands. Tropicana buys one out of every three oranges grown commercially in the state, and oversees 400 orange groves in Florida. The drink maker also processes 41 million boxes of fruit annually.

From the grove, the oranges make their way by semi-tractor trailers to conveyor belts where the citrus is further scrutinized for quality. The best make it to the next round to be washed, destemmed and have their juice extracted.

Machines separate pulp, skin and seed and are reused while the extracted juice is bottled.

Antony Rossi, an Italian immigrant, started the company in 1947 after buying a local Palmetto fruit shipper. He called the company Manatee River Packing Co. and started with 45 employees before moving the company to Bradenton in 1949 when it became Fruit Industries Inc.

The juicing operations began after Rossi needed a way to use oranges too small for gift baskets.

The Tropicana name is one of local lure. One story says Rossi saw the name of a local motel called Tropicana Cabins while another story says Rossi combined the word tropical with his wife's name, Anna.

Rossi died in 1993 at age 92, and five years later PepsiCo purchased Tropicana for $3.3 billion.

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095.

Follow him on Twitter@ImYourChuck.

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