Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 17th 2019

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Coke Property Reimagined

By Jeremy Morrison

There’s a ghost on North Palafox, an old soul with sturdy bones, watching the city evolve and patiently awaiting reincarnation.

Sigrid Solgard, executive director of Keep Pensacola Beautiful, has a pretty good view of this ghost just outside her office.

“We can literally see the building from the corner,” Solgard said, motioning in the direction of the old Coca-Cola building.

Sitting on the sleepy stretch of North Palafox heading away from downtown Pensacola, the old Coke building—former home to the Hygeia Bottling Works—has sat empty for years, its art deco-ish architecture hinting at its history. The old building haunted the imaginations within Keep Pensacola Beautiful’s offices for a while, and then it spoke to them.

“We kind of both simultaneously had the same vision,” Solgard said, casting a smile toward Jessica Irwin.

“Our vision,” said Irwin, who serves as director of programming and development with the nonprofit, “is to turn it into a true space for the community.”

This vision is pretty grand in both scale and ambition and involves transforming the historic Coke property into a community hub, one that features office space for local nonprofit organizations as well as a 20,000-square-foot community garden and 10,000 square feet of event space. But the project’s intangibles are even more ambitious, with Keep Pensacola Beautiful envisioning the property restoration as a catalytic event for the surrounding area.

“This building being revitalized will be the spark that ignites this block in general,” Solgard said.

The Bottomline
Reviving a ghost ain’t cheap. It will take a considerable investment of both time and money to transform the old Coke property into a community hub and nonprofit haven.

Keep Pensacola Beautiful, in fact, has to work quickly if the vision is to be realized at all. Come Oct. 1, the organization has been told, the building’s owner will be ready to sell—to Keep Pensacola Beautiful, if they can come up with the $350,000 down payment.

“His bottom-line is he’s going to be ready to sell the building in October no matter what,” Irwin said.

The nonprofit has been working quietly for the past three months to begin securing the needed funds to make the purchase. Following the group’s official Sept. 1 announcement of the project, fundraising has begun in earnest.

“We’re just under a quarter of the way there,” Irwin said.

Once Keep Pensacola Beautiful reaches the down payment goal, the work is just beginning. In addition to raising the remaining money—the building costs $850,000 in total—there is the restoration of the building and further development of the property into a community space.

“We’ll get on the grant cycle and be doing the renovation in phases,” Irwin said, explaining that the organization has already received commitments for $125,000 worth of in-kind restoration donations from local tradesmen looking to help nurture the project into reality.

The organization also plans to incorporate an apprenticeship element into the project, where applicable, local tradesman and craftsman can use the restoration process as a living classroom where they can impart their knowledge to apprentices learning a new skill.

Keep Pensacola Beautiful also intends to recognize the building’s history as Coke’s local bottling site with exhibits throughout the building detailing that past. Back in the spring, the nonprofit approached the University of West Florida Historic Trust for help in this effort.

Rob Overton, chief operating officer of the UWF Historic Trust, said that his board immediately recognized the value in Keep Pensacola Beautiful’s proposition.

“The board thought it was a great cause,” he said.

Story of the Ghost
Coke vacated its Palafox property in the late 1960s, moving its bottling operations across town. But prior to that, the site buzzed with activity for decades.

Overton said he looks forward to helping to relay the Coke building’s story, not only the stories of brick and mortar but also of flesh and bone.

“Just telling the story of the Hygeia Bottle Works and the people who worked there,” he said, describing the various collections of Coke-related artifacts from the era—both belonging to the trust as well as personal collections—that will be used to tell this story.

In addition to the memorabilia and artifacts, the Coke building itself also tells an interesting story. Overton explained that the property features all the facilities one might expect—the bottling area, administrative offices and such—but also some somewhat surprising elements.

Upstairs, for example, there is a gym, locker room and showers that employees used. There are also classrooms and an observation site on the top floor overlooking the city. These features were for the benefit of Coke’s employees.

“It was a time when unions were coming into power, and they were looking at psychology and what helped people work better,” Overton said. “That’s a great story.”

If UWF ends up participating in this project, the work will fit in nicely with an initiative the trust wants to begin focusing on more—sharing history out in the community.

“Taking it outside the walls of the museum,” Overton said. “Why don’t we take the museum where the people are?”

Saving History for the Future
In addition to the opportunity to share the story of the Coke property with the community, there’s another reason that the UWF Historic Trust is supporting Keep Pensacola Beautiful’s restoration plans.

“Of course,” Overton said, “this is a historic structure we’d like to see saved.”

In today’s Pensacola, it’s not uncommon for older properties to fall prey to the wrecking ball so that they can be redeveloped. Some areas of the city enjoy added protections for historic structures, but the Coke property is located just outside of such a protected district.

“The North Hill district comes right up to the street behind it and it makes this quirky little jog around it,” Overton explained.

If Keep Pensacola Beautiful does not purchase and restore the property, the organization fears it will go the way of other local historic structures deemed to have outlived their usefulness. Irwin said the nonprofit has “a strong suspicion that it will no longer be a landmark.”

“If we don’t make this happen, the building is in jeopardy,” she said. “There is some talk of it going the way of that school building in East Hill.”

That’s not a prospect Overton relishes. The potentials and possibilities of its second life as a catalytic community hub and living museum are too appealing, and it’s simply too cool of a property to suffer such a fate.

“We’d hate to see that happen,” he said. “It’s got good bones.”

To learn more about Keep Pensacola Beautiful’s efforts to purchase and restore the Coca-Cola property, visit domorepensacola.org.