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City shuts down remodeling at West Tampa cigar factory, spurring new call for landmark status

Despite repeated warnings, a developer failed to obtain permits for work on the Santaella building, according to city of Tampa authorities. Tenants were ordered to vacate.
Published Jan. 11, 2019

TAMPA — For $3.6 million, Michael Hettrich purchased a piece of West Tampa's past on Monday — the Y. Pendas y Alvarez Cigar Factory and its iconic clock tower.

Meantime, two miles away, the city of Tampa ordered a stop to remodeling work on the Santaella Cigar Factory that Hettrich bought last year.

Despite repeated warnings, Hettrich failed to obtain permits for the work or to certify that new electrical work is safe, according to city authorities. On Friday, artists who rent space in the Santaella building were ordered to vacate and power was shut off.

It marked the third time the city ordered construction on the project stopped.

Hettrich said he thought he had all the proper permits and sees the delays as a part of doing business. He said the work now under way will restore each factory to its former glory.

But his latest shutdown is driving people with an interest in historic preservation to seek more safeguards for Tampa's century-old cigar factories.

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"We have to do anything and everything within our power and the limits of the law," said Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco, who represents West Tampa. "They are the castles of our neighborhood."

One option, he said: Have the city declare all cigar factories historic landmarks, providing some level of government oversight. Neither the Santaella nor Pendas factories carry this designation.

Typically, it is property owners who seek out landmark status, but it comes with a burden: Changes to the exterior must follow city guidelines meant to preserve its original appearance. Owners do have access to preservation grants.

Historic designation does not preclude modernizing the interior, but Maniscalco said landmark status might scare owners from cutting corners that could endanger the buildings.

In 2006, the City Council considered declaring all of Tampa's cigar factories historic landmarks but a group of owners argued successfully that the move would infringe upon property rights.

Linda Saul-Sena, a member of the City Council at the time and a backer of landmark designation, said it is time to reconsider that decision.

"Instead of looking at the greater good of the community, the city administration was afraid of making property owners angry," she said. "When you buy a cigar factory you have a responsibility to protect it."

Of the 200 or so factories that operated in Tampa's cigar-making heyday, from the late-1800s through mid-1990s, only about two dozen remain. Half of them carry historic protection.

Only one factory, the Regensburg in Ybor City owned by J.C. Newman Cigar Co., still produces cigars. The others are either vacant or have been put to other uses.

Ybor City's Oliva Cigar Factory is now an apartment building, for example, and Argosy University occupies West Tampa's Berriman-Morgan Cigar Factory. Both are protected historic landmarks.

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Since 1998, the three-story, 58,000-square-foot 114-year-old Santaella factory has been used as artist lofts. Hettrich and his business partner Phil Farley purchased the building in March for $3.2 million, allowed the artists to stay, and promised improvements.

It had been "put together with bubble gum and duct tape," Hettrich said. "We are upgrading everything."

This includes rebuilding shaky walls, he said, and adding a new events center.

City officials remain skeptical.

"We don't know the extent of their work or the potential risk," said Dryden, with construction services. "It is impossible to know if it is safe."

Said Tampa Fire Marshal John Reed, "There were conditions inside that met the definition of being immediately dangerous to life and health."

Fire sprinklers were covered, stairways had no rails, and electrical modifications were never inspected by the city, Dryden said.

Hettrich's record in construction also has the cigar factory advocates worried.

He is still facing a felony charge in Pinellas County from October 2017 that he did contracting work without a license. In 2015, his Artisan Group in Cook County, Illinois, was ordered to pay a client nearly $424,000 over fraudulent construction services. And last February, his business partner Phil Farley pleaded guilty to negligently causing the release of asbestos in the development of St. Petersburg's Urban Style Flats apartments.

Still, tenants at the Santaella building like what Hettrich has done for the factory so far.

"The vibe of the building and the plans for its upgrade are very exciting," said Joe Murphy, who built a recording studio there. "The owners assisted me in my build out and are always on site."

Longtime tenant Kerry Vosler, on the other hand, loves the new studio the landlord built but had to cancel a portrait-painting workshop she scheduled for next week.

"The owners told me everybody in the building is a business partner, but you don't throw business partners under the bus like this," Vosler said.

Want to buy some time? West Tampa cigar factory with iconic clock tower is up for sale

The Pendas factory, Hettrich's new acquisition and until recently home to Tampa Tarp, will be converted into office space and its 120-foot clock tower restored, he said.

When will work begin on the 110-year-old building?

Hettrich laughed.When he gets the permits, he said.

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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