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ORLANDO-Minute Maid Co. of Houston has broken ground on a $120 million, 620,000-sf frozen orange juice processing plant and distribution center in Auburndale, FL where it plans to compete can-to-can with Tropicana Products Inc. of Bradenton, FL, the nation’s No. 1 frozen juice packager.

The project is the largest industrial real estate venture in Central and North Florida this year, according to GlobeSt.com research.

The construction work is being monitored by area brokers who sense a new industrial and retail real estate submarket may involve in the Polk County city where citrus farming remains the dominant industry.

The project is also being watched closely by frozen juice industry analysts because Minute Maid is owned by Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. and Tropicana Products Inc. is owned by rival PepsiCo. of Purchase, NY.

Auburndale is 90 miles southwest of Downtown Orlando and 60 miles west of Tampa where Tropicana is based. Another aspect of the rivalry spills out on the baseball diamond. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays play at Tropicana Field, sponsored by Pepsi. The Houston Astros play at Minute Maid Park, formerly Enron Park.

Minute Maid’s planned 60-acre campus will initially employ a staff of 120 that is expected to grow to 300 by 2006, according to the company’s prepared statement. Darin Rice, the 37-year-old, former general manager of Minute Maid’s Waco, TX plant, is being transferred to Central Florida where he will hold the same position and responsibilities.

The Polk County plant will handle Minute Maid’s new Simply Orange Brand of pasteurized juice which the company plans to market nationally in 2003.

A 300,000-sf Leesburg, FL plant, owned by Brazil-owned Cutrale, 45 miles northwest of Downtown Orlando, will continue to package the Simply Orange brand for Minute Maid, even after the Auburndale plant opens, say company officials.

Minute Maid started its operations in Plymouth, FL, 20 miles northwest of Downtown Orlando in 1945; moved its headquarters to Houston in 1967; and sold its last 16,000 acres of citrus grove land in 1993, following back-to-back freezes of 1985-86. Before pulling out of Florida, Minute Maid also sold its Auburndale and Leesburg plants in 1996.

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