Sunday, July 15, 2018
Business

Cigar factories, key pieces of Tampa's past, for sale

TAMPA

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.

     
         
Comments
This Florida burger joint is one of the 10 best in America, travel website says

This Florida burger joint is one of the 10 best in America, travel website says

A 2½-hour drive south could land Tampa residents at one of America’s best burger joints, according the review and travel website TripAdvisor.com.The website released a list of the "10 Most Delectable Burger Joints" in America on Wednesday, placing Na...
Published: 07/14/18
SunPass is a mess. Florida could have seen it coming.

SunPass is a mess. Florida could have seen it coming.

Florida’s SunPass electronic tolling system is a mess. The vendor who runs the system has a backlog of unprocessed charges now running into the millions, a total accumulated since it stopped processing tolls on June 1.Earlier this week, after it bega...
Published: 07/13/18
Updated: 07/14/18
Florida’s economy passes $1 trillion mark Friday

Florida’s economy passes $1 trillion mark Friday

Florida may seem like another country sometimes with its wacky "Florida man" stories and uniquely-Florida crimes, but it’s like another country in a new way as of today — its economic clout. Florida’s economy topped $1 trillion Friday, meaning that i...
Published: 07/13/18
Free, eco-friendly taxi service is coming to downtown St. Petersburg this August

Free, eco-friendly taxi service is coming to downtown St. Petersburg this August

ST. PETERSBURG — As downtowns grow — like St. Petersburg’s burgeoning central city — so does traffic, carbon emission and the amount of money spent on gas.The Nickel Ride, a free, eco-friendly taxi service, is looking to change that, and the next cit...
Published: 07/13/18
So far, so good. Doctors at Tampa General find success with a device that fights often-fatal aneurysms

So far, so good. Doctors at Tampa General find success with a device that fights often-fatal aneurysms

TAMPA — Dr. Murray Shames holds a flexible, lightweight tube as wide as two garden hoses pushed together in his office at Tampa General Hospital. The polyester tube, and its thinner fastening branches with metal wiring, will be attached inside someon...
Published: 07/13/18
Is a bike lane backlash brewing over St. Pete’s MLK Jr. Street N?

Is a bike lane backlash brewing over St. Pete’s MLK Jr. Street N?

ST. PETERSBURG — In the next month, the city is poised to launch one of the most ambitious bike lane projects in the Tampa Bay area.But some local business owners want to stop construction of those bike lanes along two miles of one of the city’s busi...
Published: 07/13/18
Study says Tampa has some of the highest overdraft and banking fees nationwide

Study says Tampa has some of the highest overdraft and banking fees nationwide

Florida, including Tampa Bay, has some of the highest bank fees in the country, according to a recent study by bank comparison site DepositAccounts.The website broke down overdraft fees, third-party ATM fees and monthly service fees to rank the 50 bi...
Published: 07/13/18

Miss out on Build-A-Bear’s Pay Your Age deal? Chuck E. Cheese has a Friday solution

Did you and your kids miss out on pay-your-age Build-A-Bear promotion? Perhaps they’d rather play some video games over a slice of pizza.In a promotion that some may say smacks a bit of piling on, Chuck E. Cheese announced an All You Can Play promoti...
Published: 07/13/18
Brink: Extending the Suncoast Parkway has gone from boondoggle to folly

Brink: Extending the Suncoast Parkway has gone from boondoggle to folly

In a few short weeks, the Suncoast 2 toll road project has gone from boondoggle to folly.State officials pitched the 13-mile extension of the Suncoast Parkway as a step toward eventually linking the road to Interstate 75 near Ocala via a project dubb...
Published: 07/13/18
Nissan recalls about 105K cars to replace Takata air bags

Nissan recalls about 105K cars to replace Takata air bags

Associated PressDETROIT — Nissan is recalling nearly 105,000 small cars to replace Takata passenger air bag inflators that can explode and hurl shrapnel at drivers and passengers. Included are the 2011 Versa sedan and the 2011 and 2012 Versa hatchbac...
Published: 07/13/18