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The end of a Wonder-ous era

When the bread factory in Hyde Park closes after 80 years, neighbors will take the good with the bad: no more fresh-bread smells - and no more rumbling delivery trucks.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 31, 2003


HYDE PARK NORTH -- When the Wonder Bread factory shuts down for good today, many people in South Tampa will lose a fragrant friend.

The smell is "like grandma's kitchen," said Elaine Adams, a Davis Islands resident who has bicycled past the plant hundreds of times. "It's warmth. It's comfort. It's home. It's mom."

"That neighborhood won't ever be the same," she said with a sigh.

People who live in the modest homes next to the Dakota Street plant couldn't agree more.

But they're clapping, not sighing.

How much a resident will miss the plant is proportional to how close they live to it. People who roll down their windows when they drive past it on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway will be disappointed.

But people who live next door?

They can't wait to crack open their windows, period -- and finally get fresh air in peace.

"We don't use the master bedroom because of the noise," said Kay Moore, who lives in an apartment 50 yards from the salmon-pink building and its parking lot full of trucks. "It sounds like they're bowling over there."

Bowling?

That would be the bread racks, said Fred Fisher, a former employee who lives across the street in a wood-frame house he calls "my little country cabin." There's no mistaking the din a rack makes as its wheels scale a loading ramp and skate to the back of a semi.

"It goes ka-boom, ohmmmmmmmmmmm," Fisher said.

No crash at the end. Just ka-boom, ohmmmm. Over and over.

The sound is repeated endlessly between midnight and the break of dawn. It's accompanied by the idling of truck engines, the hum of exhaust fans, the squeaky whir of heavy equipment. It's an industrial symphony.

But neighbors only hear the sour notes. They don't like big trucks snorting down their narrow streets, either. One clapped when told of the plant's closing.

"Could be a blessing in disguise," agreed David Beard, who has owned a home here for 20 years.

Beard speaks like a man in the majority. He is.

The factory was there first, but now it's cornered, literally, with the expressway at its back. The tin-roofed houses that front it are more laid back than luxurious, but the tony tidal wave that swept the rest of Hyde Park is headed its way.

For more than 80 years, the factory churned out bread. Mountains of bread.

Maybe a billion loaves in all.

At the end, up to half a million were being baked, sliced and bagged every week, and shipped to supermarkets and convenience stores throughout Tampa Bay.

Heaven knows how many gazillion grilled cheese sandwiches the plant had a role in making. Or how many lakes of chicken noodle soup got mopped up with its finest.

"Fresh. Fresh. Fresh!" it promised on the side of its trucks.

When the plant first fired up, it was one of many manufacturers that edged Hyde Park. But industries fell away, one by one, as companies found more ideal locations for shipping.

Homes rose in their place. Neighborhoods evolved.

Now, developers see trendy loft apartments on the 2.35 acres where bread was baked.

"You can really say it's the end of an era," said Del Acosta, a Hyde Park resident who oversees the city's historic districts.

Officials with Interstate Bakeries Corp., which bought the plant in 1994, decided to expand an Orlando facility rather than invest in modernizing the Hyde Park plant.

They've heard the rap. Residents love the smell but hate the trucks, said Mark Dirkes, a spokesman based at company headquarters in Kansas City, Mo. "They're big and noisy and leave in the middle of the night," he admitted.

But he offered no apologies: "We're in the business of selling fresh bread," he said. "We try to get as close to the (opening of the) market as possible."

The company will probably sell the building. It is fielding calls from developers, but Dirkes said he could not comment on the plans.

Developers who have called the city envision lofts, Acosta said.

The building is in the national Hyde Park historic district, but not the local district, which would give it more protection against demolition. But it's still historic enough that developers could earn tax credits if they save it, Acosta said.

The land is zoned for industry. Any plans for residential or commercial development would require City Council approval.

IBC officials denied a Times request to see the inside of the plant.

Fisher remembers wood floors a foot thick and ceiling beams that "say Pittsburgh, Pa., 1912, and stuff like that."

The outside never inspired him.

He shielded his view by planting bamboo and letting the shrubs grow unchecked. Wonder Bread intruded anyways: One day a delivery truck sideswiped the oak on the corner, snapping off limbs.

"It was heartbreaking," Fisher said.

He even objected to the smell. Even though Hillsborough environmental regulators disagree, he feared toxins lurked in the aroma. "When you're smelling it, you're killing yourself," he said.

After today, he will breathe easier.

With Wonder Bread gone, other development dominos may fall.

This part of Hyde Park is two blocks from Old Hyde Park Village, but it's a world away. The houses are smaller and not as fussed over. Neither are the lawns. In some yards, wildflowers sprout instead of sago palms.

It's as if the rest of Hyde Park needed a buffer against the plant.

But without industry in their face, the plant's nearest neighbors are smiling.

They expect their property values will rise like Wonder Bread.

-- Staff Writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

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