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To pay for upkeep, preservationists want more businesses in Tampa Union Station

They say that a coffee shop and entrepreneur space could help pay for around $1 million in repairs. Two city council members are all aboard.

TAMPA — Preservationists saved historic Tampa Union Station two decades ago by raising the millions of dollars needed to restore the building.

But, "there is still plenty of work to do,” said Jackson McQuigg, a board member of the Friends of Tampa Union Station, which works to raise funds for the continued preservation of the city-owned train station at 601 N. Nebraska Ave.

The building needs at least $1 million in repairs, including new windows.

To raise the money, the nonprofit is lobbying the city to seek out more tenants for Union Station — like a coffee house and an entrepreneur incubator.

Doing so would turn “Union Station into Oxford Exchange light,” said Brandie Miklus, president of Friends of Tampa Union Station, with the rent contributing to “ongoing preservation.”

City Council will discuss the idea in April.

Two members — Orlando Gudes, whose district includes the station, and Bill Carlson, who represents South Tampa — are all aboard.

“It is a jewel that was taken away once," Gudes said. "We need to make sure it is not taken away again. We need to bring vibrant businesses to Union Station so that it can thrive.”

There is an effort by preservationists to bring private businesses to the historic Tampa Union Station to help offset the costs of restoring the structure.
There is an effort by preservationists to bring private businesses to the historic Tampa Union Station to help offset the costs of restoring the structure. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Other train stations throughout the country embrace such an approach, Carlson said. “Denver’s Union Station is a working train station for commuter rail and internal rail. It also has restaurants, coffee shops and internet for entrepreneurs. Why don’t we do that in Tampa? It is Tampa’s front door for those coming by train.”

The city spends around $100,000 a year on Union Station for “key repairs," utility bills and security costs, McQuigg estimated.

Amtrak pays $775 each month for an office, according to their lease. In 1994, when the building needed money for repairs and operations, Amtrak paid 30 years rent up front — $1.08 million — for its station space.

Real estate and brokerage firm DeLaVergne & Associates leases space at Union Station, McQuigg said, but the Tampa Bay Times could not confirm the cost of its rent.

Related: Restoration of Tampa’s historic Jackson House is underway

When Friends of Tampa Union Station was founded in 2008, they created a $250,000 endowment that funnels around $10,000 a year into the city’s capital improvements fund for the building, McQuigg said.

Good Food Events + Catering pays 20 percent of gross receipts for special event rentals at the station on the first $500,000, McQuigg said. “It’s a sliding scale after that to encourage more rentals.” The rental fees also support capital improvements.

To bring in more and larger events, Union Station will turn the abandoned baggage claim building into an events center. That work is already funded through a $95,000 Hillsborough County historic preservation grant and another $55,000 in private donations.

The new windows will cost around $900,000, McQuigg said. “There is a lot of rot. The other thing is there have been leaks in the building that have damaged the plaster severely in some areas. We need new sources of income to pay for it. For any building that is over 100 years old, the work never ends.”

There is an effort by preservationists to bring private businesses to the historic Union Station to help offset the costs of restoring the structure.
There is an effort by preservationists to bring private businesses to the historic Union Station to help offset the costs of restoring the structure. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The two-story, Italian Renaissance revival brick building with 13,080 square feet of interior space was erected in 1912 for around $250,000.

Originally owned by the Tampa Union Station Company, “it combined passenger operations for the Atlantic Coast Line, the Seaboard Air Line and the Tampa Northern Railroad into a single site,” reads the Friends of Tampa Union Station’s website. It “served railroad passengers through the Great Depression, both World Wars, and into the Amtrak era. Along the way — in 1974 — it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.”

The trains brought tobacco to the city’s cigar industry. Baseball Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle and actress Lupe Valez were among the tourists who traveled to Tampa through Union Station, according to news archives.

As the popularity of the rail system diminished due to the growth of air travel, Union Station fell into such disrepair that it was shuttered in 1984.

Leaks were so bad, McQuigg said, that rain would “cascade in.”

Amtrak instead used a prefabricated building on the site for ticket sales and a waiting room.

Then, in 1991, the Tampa Union Station Preservation & Redevelopment Inc. nonprofit, which included McQuigg and his late father, John McQuigg, purchased the historic building from CSX for $600,000 and raised another $4 million to restore it.

Union Station was then donated to the city and reopened in 1998.

Prior to the coronavirus, Amtrak provided service to 110,309 passengers a year through Union Station, McQuigg said, with trains traveling as far north as New York and Washington, D.C.

“There is still this idea of romance behind the station and train travel,” Miklus said. “I feel like everyone has a story to tell about a train and the excitement the travel can bring.”

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