As luxury apartments and new housing developments spring up all over the region, a few grand old buildings stand as solid reminders of what helped make Tampa the city it is today.
Once they were the factories where thousands of workers hand-rolled Cuban tobacco into the finest cigars money could buy. Today, Tampa's cigar industry is but a ghost of its former presence, yet these century-old buildings not only have survived, but in many cases been reborn for other uses.
And now two of them are for sale.
The smaller one, priced at $399,000, sits just east of Ybor City, named for the man who transformed 40 acres into what would become the cigar capital of the world from the 1880s to the 1940s.
Realtor John Dingfelder, a former Tampa City Council member, calls the 6,000-square-foot building a "sweet little factory" where a small church has held services for the past 25 years.
"Now they've asked me to help them sell it so they can use the money to complete a smaller, newer, less expensive place nearby," Dingfelder says. While the factory is a "bit off the beaten path," he adds, "it's a great opportunity for a small-business headquarters or for artists."
The much larger factory is in booming West Tampa, almost directly beneath Interstate 275 and the daily crush of traffic that reflects the city's explosive growth away from cigars and toward a much broader-based if less colorful economy.
In the month that the former Balbin Bros. Cigar Factory has been on the market, listed at just over $2 million, "I've shown it 20 plus times," agent Dan Roberts says. "It has so much appeal, people have such a desire to see this come to life again. It's a unique property; it's kind of preserving heritage."
Both factories were built in the traditional way, with vast, high-ceilinged interiors where row upon row of workers sat at benches while a lector or reader read to them from books and periodicals. Both structures have tall windows on their north and south sides, allowing breezes to blow through and providing plenty of light, while the thick brick walls on the east and west kept out the hot morning and afternoon sun.
Dating to the early 1900s, the two factories are among the 25 survivors of a transformative chapter in Tampa history written by Vicente Martinez Ybor and his fellow cigarmakers.
In his youth, Ybor emigrated from Spain to Cuba and went into the cigar business. But when Cubans rebelled against the Spanish, throwing the island into turmoil, Ybor moved his factory from Havana to Key West and later expanded to New York.
Labor disputes soon caused problems in both places, prompting Ybor and others to look along Florida's Gulf Coast and the tiny town of Tampa, originally established as a U.S. Army base during the Seminole Wars. The climate was good, transportation was excellent (thanks to Henry Plant's new railroad line) and cigar workers could be lured from Key West and Cuba with promises of inexpensive housing.
In 1885, Ybor bought 40 acres east of Tampa and agreed to give cigar factories free 10-year leases if they would relocate there. Impressed by the rapid growth of Ybor City, then an independent town, Tampa's city attorney spearheaded a drive to buy 120 acres west of the Hillsborough River that became the basis of the West Tampa cigar industry.
Before long, the factories were producing millions of cigars each year and employing thousands of workers of Spanish, Cuban, Afro-Cuban and Italian descent.
By the time Ybor died in 1897, "his vision of an immigrant artisan community prospering in a free enterprise country (had become) one of the South's greatest success stories in the post-Reconstruction era," Bruce Koepnick wrote in a 2005 master's thesis on Tampa's historic cigar factories.
But the industry began an inexorable slide due to the Great Depression and other factors: a series of bitter strikes; a fire that destroyed many Ybor City factories; mechanization of cigarmaking that led to consolidation and closing of factories; and the U.S. embargo against Fidel Castro's regime that cut off access to Cuban tobacco.
Today only one company — J.C. Newman — makes cigars in Tampa. Of the more than 200 factories listed in old city records, only 25 still stand.
"Most of them have gone through second- or third-generation uses," says Vince Pardo, former manager of the Ybor City Development Corp. "When I was a kid, one on Fourth Avenue was a casket factory."
Surviving factories have been repurposed into office space for an engineering company and the Lions Eye Institute. Vicente Ybor's original factory, rechristened Ybor Square and anchored by a Spaghetti Warehouse, is now owned by the Church of Scientology. Another factory is being renovated into luxury apartments.
In West Tampa, Argosy University leases a former factory just a few blocks from the 36,000-square-foot Balbin Bros. factory now for sale at 1202 N Howard Ave. Both have been designated as local landmarks in an effort to protect them from the wrecking ball and preserve their striking Mediterranean revival exteriors with parapets and intricate brick work.
These and other extant factories "are important for the history of Tampa," says Dennis W. Fernandez, manager of Tampa's historical preservation department. "It was a major industry that not only brought economic prosperity in the form of jobs and investment — both West Tampa and Ybor City were wholly created out of the cigar industry — but it also brought a lot of attention to Tampa as the cigar capital of the world and caused further interest in bringing other (businesses) here to continue to grow Tampa at a critical time."
Over its 111 years, the former Balbin Bros. factory has been owned by the Tampa-Cuba Cigar Co., a brewing company and a clothing manufacturer. In 2006, a dental technology company bought it for $1.5 million to use as a headquarters, but the recession killed that plan. The $2.05 million asking price is for the factory, two vacant adjacent parcels and one of the original houses built for cigar workers.
Although the surrounding area is run down, the 35,000-square-foot factory has a prime location between West Shore and downtown Tampa, with superb views of both from the top floor. Farther south on Howard Avenue is an old armory being transformed into the new Jewish Community Center campus and dozens of high-end shops, restaurants and apartments.
"Part of (the factory's) appeal is that the Howard corridor is really taking off," said Dingfelder, the Realtor and former council member. "Even though it's not my listing, I'm promoting it to everyone because I just love it."
Despite being vacant for years, the three-story factory remains in remarkably good shape. Much of its oak flooring is intact, as are some original windows, tile work and stained-glass transom over the entrance. The slightly pitched roof has prevented a moisture buildup that could have destroyed the building.
"The roof saved it," said Roberts, the listing agent.
Throughout the building are dust-covered wheels, gears and other parts of equipment used to hoist and internally transport huge bundles of Cuban tobacco leaves — leaves that went into the smokes that made a little town in Florida known the world over as "Cigar City."
This story used information from Tampa's Historic Cigar Factories: Making a Case for Preservation by Brian Koepnick. Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.