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Saint Leo University adds satellite campus in historic Tampa building

The new campus is in the 116-year-old Berriman-Morgan Cigar Factory.
Saint Leo University has opened a satellite campus in West Tampa's Berriman-Morgan Cigar Factory.
Saint Leo University has opened a satellite campus in West Tampa's Berriman-Morgan Cigar Factory. [ Courtesy of Renee Gerstein ]
Published Dec. 23, 2020
Updated Dec. 23, 2020

TAMPA — There’s an obvious synergy between Nicholas Jammal’s 116-year-old Berriman-Morgan Cigar Factory and his new tenant, 131-year-old Saint Leo University.

“They are both historic,” he said. “But it goes further than that.”

During Tampa’s heyday as Cigar City, the cigar factories employed lectors to read to the workers.

“The lectors sat in a chair in front of everyone and they entertained and educated,” said Jammal, who runs Jammal Engineering. “Now, we have teachers sitting before a classroom of students and doing the same. It is a perfect fit.”

Saint Leo’s moved into the West Tampa brick cigar factory earlier this month.

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Jeffrey Senese, president of Saint Leo University, acknowledged that synergy played a role in the decision. “The other reason is that it has a really cool vibe.”

Plus, the four-story, 32,000-square-foot Berriman-Morgan Cigar Factory was set up for university use.

Its previous tenant was Argosy University, which shuttered in 2019 after leasing the space since 2008.

Saint Leo’s main campus remains in Pasco County, north of Wesley Chapel and west of Dade City, where Senese said around 2,500 students attend.

But the Catholic university also has satellite campuses — called Education Centers — throughout Florida and in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, according to its website.

The Tampa Education Center in the cigar factory at 1403 N. Howard Ave. serves more than 300 students through eight classrooms, according to the university. A release says the campus also is home to the university’s Center for Online Learning Student Advising, Student Financial Services and executive offices.

The majors offered at the Tampa Education Center include business administration, criminal justice, accounting, elementary education and social work.

“We also created an event space for public use,” Senese said. “We want to create a hub of activity here.”

The building buzzed with activity, Jammal said, when it was an operational cigar factory.

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Constructed in 1904, Matthew and Edward Berriman of the Berriman Cigar Company headquartered operations there until they moved to Ybor City in 1911. That year, William Thomas Morgan of the Morgan Cigar Company purchased the building. Around 1,000 workers rolled more than 11 million cigars a year there through the 1960s.

Cigar sorter at work at Berriman Cigar Factory in Ybor City in 1929.
Cigar sorter at work at Berriman Cigar Factory in Ybor City in 1929. [ Courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System ]

The factory was next used by Gonzales and Sons as a tobacco warehouse through the 1970s but sat empty for approximately 25 years after Tampa’s “cigar industry faded,” Jammal said. Its title was eventually taken over by the city and the factory was designated a local historic landmark.

Related: Century-old Ybor City clock tower will ring again soon

Jammal purchased the Berriman-Morgan Cigar Factory for $600,000 in 2004, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website.

“It was in terrible shape,” Jammal said, citing the need for a new roof, windows and floors. “We had to put $6 million into the building. Some people saw it as a structure that needed to be demolished. I saw it as a beautiful building with lots of history and with strong bones that could be saved. We have to respect our history.”

Saint Leo University was established by members of the Benedictine religious order on June 4, 1889, according to its website. “Over the years, Saint Leo changes identities nearly a dozen times — from a college to a military college, to a preparatory academy, back to a college, and, finally, a university” in 1999.

“We are very excited,” Senese said, “to have a new home in Tampa that allows us to be a part of preserving an important part of the city’s heritage.”