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Hav-A-Tampa closes its factory, ending an era for the local cigar industry and the city it made synonymous with stogies

TAMPA — They made their first cigar in Tampa in 1902.

In July, they will make their last.

A piece of Tampa history was extinguished Tuesday when the parent company of Hav-A-Tampa cigars announced it will close its local production plant, near E Broadway Avenue, leaving almost 500 employees jobless.

"It's not just us. It's everybody in the business," said Rick Mc­Kenzie, senior vice president of human resources for Altadis U.S.A. "Is there an easy answer? I don't know of one."

The company will continue to make the Hav-A-Tampa brand in Puerto Rico, McKenzie said.

McKenzie blamed the closure on government policies that group cigarettes, chewing tobacco and cigars under the label of tobacco and increasingly regulate them all.

He said the one that really hurt came in April when a federal tobacco tax hike took effect to pay for the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

A 5-cent tax was bumped up to about 40 cents on large cigars, with a lesser increase for smaller cigars. The money provides health insurance to 11 million low-income children.

• • •

When Hav-A-Tampa opened more than 100 years ago, Tampa was known as Cigar City.

"For a long time, because of the word Tampa being in the name of the company, they were synonymous not only with cigars but Tampa-made cigars," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator at the Tampa Bay History Center.

"They were one of the few companies started early on that was owned by American-born businessmen, and they also were one of the first companies to bring machines into the factories,'' he said. "That kind of revolutionized the business for good or for bad, depending on who you ask."

The company, also the makers of Tampa Nugget, Tampa Sweet and Phillies cigars, was locally owned until 1997, when Tabacalera of Madrid, Spain's largest tobacco company, bought it.

Two years later, Tabacalera merged with a French tobacco giant to form Altadis S.A.

The two companies combined cigar operations to create Altadis U.S.A., and England's Imperial Tobacco bought it in 2008.

The closure of Hav-A-Tampa means just one sizable cigar-making factory remains in Tampa: J.C. Newman Cigar Co., with about 150 employees.

"We're the last of the Mohicans," said Bobby Newman, company executive vice president.

"It's a sad day for Tampa," Newman said. "Tampa used to be the cigar capital of the world, and Hav-A-Tampa was a big player in the industry."

• • •

Local retail cigar businesses say the tax has hurt them, too.

At Ybor Cigars Plus, Paula Moreno let eight employees go this year. "That's eight families," she said. "If we close, it's 15 employees. That's 15 families with no income."

She has reduced her work force but added entertainment. Live music helps. New drink specials written on notebook paper stand on tables next to thick, glass ashtrays.

And there's increasing Ybor competition. A block away, NicaHabana Cigars opened less than a month ago.

Tobacco is all Maria Galeano knows. Her father farmed it. She has worked in factories since she was 16. But her hours at her last cigar job were cut down to 20 a week. She needs to support herself, five children and a pregnant daughter-in-law. Money for a house went to the new business.

And so, the unsteady industry moves on, leaving behind the Hav-A-Tampa factory. The nondescript industrial building on Riga Boulevard is so far east of Ybor City, it is nearly in Brandon. And the brand that once made its hometown synonymous with cigars puts out the light on a period of Tampa history as rich as a hand-rolled corona.

McKenzie said employees weren't surprised about the closing but by how soon it came.

Stephen Villane started packing cigars in the Hav-A-Tampa factory more than two years ago.

"It's just been downhill," Villane said. "The tobacco industry's frowned upon. Everyone knew what was going to happen."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and staff writer Jeff Harrington contributed to this report, which uses information from the Associated Press. Ileana Morales can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or imorales@ sptimes.com.

Hav-A-Tampa closes its factory, ending an era for the local cigar industry and the city it made synonymous with stogies 06/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 11:28am]
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