One contract between two companies that operate worldwide has spurred a huge investment in Bartow, a boon for Polk County and the county seat.

Peace River Citrus Products started work in June 2020 on a $98 million expansion at its Bartow processing plant, said Rob Clancey, president of the Bartow Economic Development Council. The expansion is the result of a recently renewed 10-year contract Peace River signed with Coca-Cola to manufacture juice products.

Coca-Cola, which operates a growing production plant in Auburndale, owns the Minute Maid and Simply juice brands. When the new processing facility is up and running, it will make every container of Minute Maid orange juice sold in McDonald’s throughout the U.S. and Canada, Clancey said.

“This expansion means we are truly viable,” Clancey said of Bartow. “Everybody talks about the Interstate 4 corridor. Developers, site selectors — that’s all they know. This is setting a precedent. There are other places to build.”

Clancey referenced another manufacturer, Nucor Steel Florida, which chose Frostproof to build its steel micro mill. And, he said, he has another major manufacturer that hopefully will close in the next two to three months.

Peace River Citrus Products, started by Bill Becker in 1991, has been processing citrus in Bartow since the privately-owned company expanded there in 2002. Its expansion will add a 320,000-square-foot facility to package and blend citrus for juice products. Currently, Peace River processes and stores juice for not-from-concentrate and concentrate juice, and supplies byproducts to flavoring and other companies worldwide.

“This is an enormously important strategic initiative for Peace River,” said Andy Taylor, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Peace River Citrus Products. “It strengthens our four-decade plus relationship with Coca-Cola and provides opportunities for Peace River to further expand our role in supporting Coca-Cola’s juice supply chain. It also diversifies our business to an extent, though it still falls within our wheelhouse and area of core competency.”

Along with the expansion comes about 175 new jobs, which will bring total employment at the Peace River plants to about 325. The new jobs will pay about $47,000 a year.

Incentives

It took teamwork to complete the deal, Clancey said, leading Peace River to get the maximum Qualified Targeted Industry Tax Refund incentive paid for by the state, county and city. That incentive allows Peace River to receive a $5,000 tax refund for each job that pays above 115% percent of the county wage average. It also will be exempt from paying certain impact fees and property taxes.

“The Central Florida Development Council was outstanding,” Clancey said. “They dotted every I and crossed every T. We were in competition, especially with the state of Georgia. We had to make sure we could get them those incentives. This was a grand slam.”

Taylor said several factors led them to pick Bartow. “We already owned land in Bartow adjacent to our existing fruit processing plant. So, there were economies associated with locating the project in proximity to our existing facility. But, the Savannah, Georgia, location offered benefits, including proximity to the port and better proximity to major shipping/customer points. Georgia pursued our project with a very aggressive incentive package, but at the end of the day, Florida also offered significant economic incentives, and those incentives coupled with the known business-friendly location in Bartow carried the day.”

Clancey said everyone working together — from the city manager and city planners to the CFDC, BEDC, the leadership at Peace River and more — shows how collaborative the county can be. “It’s how we all came together, how easy and fluid it was, to make sure this happened..”

The Future of Citrus

Despite continuing to battle the deadly citrus bacteria known as greening, growers and processors are positive about the future. And so is Coca-Cola, which announced in 2013 it would invest $2 billion to plant 25,000 acres of orange groves in Florida.

“People talk about citrus not being in great demand. Coca-Cola doesn’t see it that way. They’ve expanded in Auburndale and are now with Peace River Citrus Products,” Clancey said. “Those who know how to deal with citrus are concentrating in good ol’ Central Florida. They are making a big difference.”

And Peace River Citrus Products is part of the future and will be making an even bigger difference when they start processing in the new facility at the end of 2021 or in early 2022, Clancey said. “They are pushing hard to get that thing up and running.”

Taylor said the company’s commitment to citrus means it is either geniuses or crazy. “Actually, I don’t know about genius, but I don’t think we are crazy. We are not involved in other commodities and industries like some of our former competitors. We think citrus is sufficiently complicated and requires our exclusive attention. We have the best team in the business with lots of experience; we have been through the freezes, hurricanes, diseases, trade conflicts, etc.  We know the business and we like our business. We have an owner who is dedicated and passionate about the industry, and whose commitment to Peace River and to the industry is unwavering.”

When greening arrived and decimated the citrus crop, the company positioned the business to prosper.

“We established long-term relationships with growers that are committed to the business.  We bought land with excellent soil and water and developed thousands of acres of new grove using the best rootstocks under a long-term contract with the Coca-Cola Company.  This contract provided price stability and helped assure our operation of fruit needed for processing, while also assuring Coca-Cola of the juice products it needed to support their valued Minute-Maid and Simply brands. We diversified our plantings, adding a major investment in lemon groves.  We will process lemons at our existing Bartow plant, and we will supply the juice to Coca-Cola under a long-term agreement to support the Simply Lemonade brand.”