Most of us know this brick-built, cigar-laden haven of greater Tampa as an atmospheric bar-and-restaurant Latin quarter ready to host Guavaween and other trendy distractions.
But Ybor City is also catching more buzz as a mecca for a surprisingly diverse range of businesses. In recent years, companies from downtown Tampa, the West Shore and Channel districts, South Tampa and other locations have scanned the metro horizon for new digs. Many chose to relocate in Ybor.
Many of those Ybor transplants are "creative" companies like advertising and marketing firm ChappellRoberts (an Ybor pioneer more than seven years ago) or video production specialists like Tampa Digital and Tricycle Studios or design and engineering players like Wilson Miller/Stantec.
When ChappellRoberts' Ybor lease was up last year, the firm looked for new space in only one location: Ybor. "The energy, creative vibe and diversity inspire our team," says CEO and owner Colleen Chappell. "Our team believes Ybor gives us our creative edge."
Glowing testimonials may sound as if they're ginned up by the local chamber of commerce. No doubt, local economic development officials bask in the enthusiasm of recent business arrivals. Yet it is a bullish theme I heard from many Ybor firms I visited and interviewed.
Ybor's not everybody's cup of business tea. It's still got a gritty feel, especially off the main streets. Tattoos, alternative lifestyles and late-hour antics may rattle more straitlaced enterprises. Businesses volunteer, usually before I inquire, that "crime" is not an issue, but many employees do get primers on safety and staying aware in Ybor.
The businesses that do come are drawn because Ybor is considered cool and edgy, just the type of image creative types of firms want to cultivate. They come, frankly, because it gets boring working out of a downtown high-rise or the boxy West Shore office building that's hard to tell from the other six on the block.
They come because their workforce likes to walk out of their office for lunch or after work and have dozens of great Ybor places to eat or entertain within a few blocks. They come because, if you look at a map, Ybor is sandwiched by such major roads as Interstate 4, 275 and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, which makes getting in and out of Ybor surprisingly convenient.
(Just ask Ikea, the hot Swedish assemble-yourself home furnishings giant that opened on the southeast edge of Ybor in 2009.)
And increasingly, they come because being based in Ybor City is now a selling point when recruiting talented people.
That's just the surface of change. Did you know Ybor in more recent years is now home to Savtira, a sophisticated computer company specializing in so-called "cloud" computing? Or home to Innovaro, a consulting firm that helps businesses become more innovative? Or home to the Lions Eye Institute, a nonprofit research group that prepares and ships corneas for eye surgery serving 61 of Florida's 67 counties?
There's even talk about establishing an Ybor business incubator (or at least a business "accelerator," which is sort of an Incubator Lite) to better support young firms.
The latest corporate arrival may prove a good test of Ybor's balancing act. While many embrace incoming businesses, area leaders want to ensure that Ybor not sacrifice too much of its roots and culture in the process.
C.H. Robinson, a Fortune 500 company specializing in transportation logistics, is opening an office in space near the Centro Ybor entertainment complex formerly occupied by the retail store Urban Outfitters.
That shift of street-level space away from the consumer is carefully watched by folks like Vince Pardo, an Ybor native and manager of the public Ybor City Development Corp. He's all for new businesses. But, he says, let's limit their presence on the main tourism streets or keep them on the second floors.
"People do not want to visit an office park," he says.
For now, that's not a big worry. New businesses, in fact, help fill restaurants at lunch and bars after work in slower seasons. That keeps Ybor healthier and growing.
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One recent morning I meet Ybor City Chamber of Commerce chief Tom Keating for a walking tour of Ybor's recent business arrivals. Before the tour begins, we steep ourselves in one of Ybor's grand start-of-the day traditions: toasted Cuban bread and coffee at La Tropicana Cafe on Seventh Avenue, Ybor's main street.
It's hard not to wallow in Ybor history right alongside its bevy of new businesses. Where else in too-new Florida can you catch renowned USF St. Petersburg history professor Gary Mormino leading tours of students, regaling them with tales of Ybor's rich past?
An enthusiastic Keating takes me on a whirlwind visit. We head north toward I-4 past stylish condos on 10th and 11th avenues, past the post office and by the refurbished cigar factory that's now home to the Wilson Miller/Stantec design and engineering firm.
Wilson Miller relocated to Ybor after rehabilitating an 1895 cigar factory that had earlier served as the Ybor City Brewing Co. Senior principal Dave Kemper says the company talked candidly five-plus years ago whether Ybor was the right fit for a serious business.
"We found Ybor a win-win," he says. The location, now with 80 employees, is close to entertainment and the redesigned cigar factory beats "the typical suburban glass-office building." Ybor's "character and location," Kemper says, play big roles in recruiting good talent.
At nearby Savtira, a powerful computer sits in its own glass-paneled room inside the company's lobby. The company, which opened in January, offers trendy cloud computing services, which allow retailers and other businesses to keep their online content and IT operations on Savtira computers. Next door is consulting firm Innovaro, formerly Utek Corp., which chose Ybor over its former Plant City site for a more central location.
Passing the Gonzmart family's Ybor icon, the Columbia Restaurant, we swing by the Lions Eye Institute, whose refurbished cigar factory contains a sterile lab for preparing eye corneas for transplants and to be transported throughout Florida. CEO and Tampa native Jason Woody says Ybor is better located than the nonprofit's former space in Tampa's West Shore district.
Further down 21st Street lies the ongoing construction of what will be the U.S. headquarters of the Fuente Cigar Co. in — what else? — the old Fuente cigar factory. All Arturo Fuente brand cigars made in the Dominican Republic and sold in this country will be managed from this building. Heading further south a few more blocks to the edge of Ybor, there's the huge Ikea home furnishings retail store.
Swing back to Seventh Avenue and 19th Street to the second floor of a 1905 building to find Tricycle Studios, which has carved a marketing niche out of making medical surgery documentaries. It relocated to the heart of Ybor after 12 years in a Hyde Park bungalow, says Tona Bell. She's president but prefers the title of "Alpha Kitty" — probably a good signal the firm will fit nicely in Ybor's culture.
Further east on Seventh, past Centro Ybor, the BioScrip Pharmacy moved from South Tampa and opened last fall. It joins with Metro Wellness and, soon, a USF pediatric clinic in what was a former Badcock Furniture store.
On the extreme western edge of Ybor is one of the area's biggest private employers: Kforce, a national staffing firm with 800 employees on its campus setting. Michael Blackman, Kforce chief development officer, says its relocation a decade ago has served the company well, especially for a firm whose cubicles are full of driven 20-somethings who like Ybor's entertainment and even housing proximity.
Somehow, it's starting to click for companies in quirky Ybor. Now it's all about keeping the momentum and maintaining the curious balance that keeps Ybor an alternative attraction to modern Florida, even for business.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]