This time next year, the 1909 packing plant on Tildenville School Road should be bustling with new life.
Local entrepreneur Gary Hasson has been planning for nearly two years now to revitalize the historic citrus-packing plant at 1061 Tildenville School Road. Built as part of the South Lake Apopka Citrus Growers Association, the plant’s citrus-processing days ended in the 1990s.
Now, though, Hasson — who has been in the renovation business most of his life — is working to give the packing house a new life centered on embracing the future while honoring the past.
The project is officially dubbed the Old Packing House, and it comprises 52,000 square feet of office space and restaurant/retail. Hasson said the motto will be “Meet me at the OPH.”
Executive and office space will take over the 16,000-square-foot second floor, while the remaining 36,000 square feet on the ground floor is to be transformed into a marketplace complete with various vendors and eateries.
“We’ve got a pizza place, an ice cream place, an Asian restaurant, we’ve got an Italian market and deli, we’ve got a coffee shop and bakery,” Hasson said. “Those people we have leases for now, and we’re looking for about three more restaurants.”
There also will be a natural history museum incorporated, showcasing numerous prehistoric and Ice Age fossils and minerals — such as a complete woolly mammoth leg and foot and one of the few Megalodon jaws in the world.
“We’ve got skeletons and other fossils and minerals that we’ll have in a permanent exhibit there,” Hasson said. “Additionally, one of the vendors is going to be a mineral and fossil company, and another one is going to be an art store that sells autographed memorabilia from the movies and television.”
Those who have driven by the packing house recently might have noticed the exterior renovations underway. Much of the old, damaged exterior metal has been replaced, and the plant has a fresh blue-and-white paint job. Up next are the windows and doors.
Part of the charm of the Old Packing House will be its homage to Winter Garden’s citrus-growing roots, Hasson said. Patrons will feel like they’re stepping back in time to 1909.
“We’re honoring all the old families that used to pack at the packing house and also in our Winter Garden/Ocoee/Apopka and Oakland areas,” he said. “We’re going to blow up the old citrus labels they used to have on the crates, and we’re going to put them all over the building.”
For Hasson, keeping the history that built Winter Garden alive is a responsibility he happily assumes. After all, his own family was in the citrus business.
“I’ve always loved the citrus industry,” he said. “I said, ‘This would be perfect, to have a themed historical restoration that basically restored the historical significance of Winter Garden and the citrus industry that built it.’ Our building was built in 1909, so I want (guests) to feel like they’re going back in time. I want this to be a place for the locals.”
Other plans for the OPH include abundant indoor and outdoor seating, parking for golf carts and bicycles, special events throughout the year, catering opportunities, live music and more.
Hasson said the opening date has been pushed back to summer 2021 to better ensure OPH and its vendors can open in a good economy. In the meantime, work continues on restoring the packing house, and Hasson is excited to share the historical significance of the local citrus industry.
“A lot of people know we’re in Orange County, but you don’t see the significance of the citrus industry and how it developed Winter Garden and the surrounding area,” he said. “A lot of people (also) don’t realize Dr. Phillips basically started in the citrus business, and we have a lot to be thankful for for those early families, because they basically put Orlando on the map.”