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Marketplace for the home has designs on Ybor City

Known more for its cigars, coffee and Cuban sandwiches, this historic section of Tampa soon may be getting a spiffier, modern image. This fall, construction will begin on the Florida Design Center, a massive showcase of furniture, carpeting and top interior designs _ none of which ever would have been seen in any of the old cigar workers' houses that once dominated Ybor City.

Instead, the emphasis will be on haute couture and high fashion for the home.

To be located on Palm Avenue and 19th Street, the three-story building will be Florida's second design center and the only one on the state's West Coast.

Instead of trekking across the state or to an Atlanta showcase, local designers and homeowners will be able to see the latest in design and furnishings in the 239,000-square-foot center.

About 10 percent of the space already has been leased, said Sharon C. Burnell, the center's executive director. By the time the building is completed in early 1993, she expects 50 percent of the building to be leased.

"It's bringing people in from all over the country," Burnell said Thursday. "People see Tampa as one of the really exciting places."

In a progress report to the Tampa City Councilthis week, Burnell said construction will start this fall.

Florida's only other design center is the Design Center of the Americas near Miami. After five years, the center is 98 percent leased and being enlarged to 800,000 square feet.

The original Florida Design Center was in downtown Miami's troubled Overtown neighborhood. After repeated thefts and looting, it closed in 1985, with most of the tenants moving 20 miles up Interstate 95 to the Design Center of the Americas.

Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena said Tampa's Design Center will attract new business to Ybor City. Not only will local decorators and buyers flock to the center, she also predicts designers from throughout the southeast will make trips to Ybor City, giving the Miami center some tough competition.

"It will be a magnet," Saul-Sena said.

Developer Al Hoffman said he hopes the Florida Design Center will revitalize Ybor City much the way a marketplace in Atlanta boosted that southern city's economy. The design center first was proposed for a 50-story building in downtown Tampa, but plans shifted to historic Ybor City when Hoffman saw the need for a smaller center.

According to preliminary plans, the center will be designed in keeping with Ybor's Latin flavor. While homeowners will not be able to buy furnishings at the center, they will be able to look at a large selection of designs, styles and samples, Saul-Sena said. The center also will conduct seminars and special events.

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