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Reincarnation of factory gets started

A lot of work remains to be done before an abandoned cigar factory on N 16th Street in Ybor City can be turned into the bustling business center it is envisioned to be. But on Saturday, a group of young people made a start.

About 10 teenagers from a city parks program cleared weeds, debris and scrub surrounding the old Perfecto Garcia cigar factory in preparation for a virtual shopping center of small businesses that will one day be housed there.

"So much has been pushed out of Ybor City," said Tampa consultant Michael A. Eurich. "We needed to find a day-to-day commercial area."

The business center, also called an urban small business incubator, will be in a city enterprise zone that provides incentives for reinvesting in urban neighborhoods. The project is "basically for small businesses that need a jump-start," said Randy Crowder, an economic development specialist for Tampa.

The center, which could be ready by March, will help small businesses by giving them a break in rent, as well as in administrative costs though central access to computers, fax machines and secretarial services. The cost will be divided among the businesses to keep the overhead down "at a time when they need help," Crowder said.

To help get the cigar factory in shape for its new incarnation, the city provided a dumptruck for the debris and about 10 teens from a Parks Department youth program to do the work.

"They removed all the scrub from around the building," said Johnny Cobb, a city equipment operator. "They did a tremendous job in a short time."

Shakita Brown, 16, a student at Tampa Bay Tech, was among those still working at the site Saturday afternoon.

"It was an experience," Brown said. "We weeded, mowed, raked and cut. It was hard work, tiring and stressful. But when you see what you've accomplished, it makes you feel good."

The business center is the brainchild of Jim Walter Jr., creator of the Life Skills Foundation, a non-profit agency involved in various community programs.

The Life Skills Foundation will take up about 7,000 square feet of the building's 47,000 square feet; 13 to 25 small businesses will use the rest of the space, Eurich said.

The business operators will be drawn from neighborhood residents, and the center will house a police substation, a child-care center and a bank, Eurich said.

He said the foundation still needs to raise $800,000 of the $1.4-million cost of building acquisition and renovation, a task he expects to accomplish by next October. The three-story factory will be renovated to look much the way it did when it was built in 1914, Eurich said.