TAMPA ― As the story goes, W.H. Streeter used $85 in gambling winnings to establish the Tierra del Lago Cigar Co.
His cigar revenues later funded a factory in the community of Gary, on the outskirts of Ybor City.
Showtime Construction owner Cedric Powell said he is now willing to take his own gamble on that 113-year-old cigar factory and the surrounding neighborhood, which is primarily made up of warehouses and blighted homes.
Powell purchased the vacant Tierra del Lago factory at 1908 N 36th St. in November for $300,000 from Vincent Jackson, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver who died in February.
He is now asking Tampa City Council to name the factory a local historic landmark.
Dennis Fernandez, the city of Tampa’s historic preservation officer, said the vote could occur in May.
Powell, who owns a dozen Hillsborough County properties according to the Property Appraiser’s website, said he will spend the next 12 to 18 months restoring the brick structure into a community and events center.
“This area is up and coming,” Powell said. “I believe in it. We’re less than a mile from the Columbia Restaurant. Ybor is changing rapidly, and downtown is growing. I think this neighborhood is next.”
Historic designation preserves the exterior of a building and carries a financial burden: Changes must follow city guidelines meant to protect the original appearance. That can be expensive and time consuming.
The 10,000-square-foot, four-story building requires new windows and exterior doors. Those must look like they date to the early 1900s if Powell’s request is granted.
Of the 200 or so factories that operated in Tampa’s heyday as cigar capital of the world, the late 1800s through mid-1900s, only about two dozen remain. Half carry historic protection. The other half can have their exteriors modernized and altered.
Typically, it is up to a property owner to request historic landmark status, but City Council can force the designation. In 2019, City Council discussed doing so for all cigar factories after West Tampa’s Santaella Cigar Factory, which is not a historic landmark, was painted white by the owner. Nothing has to come of that yet.
If Powell’s request is approved, future owners of his building would have to keep the historic look.
“I want the factory to remain in my family for 100 years,” Powell said. “But I also want to make sure that our work cannot be undone.”
Powell estimates restorations will cost around $1.5 million.
“This is a gamble, but only if you are looking at the near future,” he said. “I want the building to anchor the neighborhood’s revival. Plus, why own a building with history if you don’t want to keep it historic? This is about respecting the city’s heritage.”
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The Streeter gambling story was told in a 1937 history report on Lakeland, which was funded by the United States Work Progress Administration.
The Tierra del Lago company is first mentioned in local newspapers in 1904 when Streeter built a factory in Lakeland on the corner of Pine Street and Kentucky Avenue.
“Tierra del Lago is Spanish for Lakeland,” the Weekly Tribune wrote. “Hence we have the Lakeland Cigar Company.”
The Weekly Tribune wrote the following year that the company began as a one-man venture but had expanded to six-man workforce with their principal cigar brand being O.U.No., as in “O. U. No. it is unnecessary to ask a buyer what kind of cigar suits his taste best.”
In 1907, according to the Weekly Tribune, the company outgrew the Lakeland space and constructed the Gary factory that could fit a workforce of 200.
“It opened in 1908 at the address of 1908,” Powell said. “There is synergy.”
With original boundaries of Sixth Avenue to 11th Avenue and 26th Street to 28th Street, the town Gary was established in 1898. Primarily known for celery and dairy farms back then, Gary provided food to Ybor, the epicenter of the area’s cigar industry.
News archives say Gary also had “several” cigar factories.
Tierra del Lago Co. remained in Gary until 1919 and then moved to an Ybor factory. In 1923, Gary was annexed into the city of Tampa.
When Tampa’s cigar industry declined, so did businesses that supported it. That included Gary’s farms. Over the decades, the farmlands were replaced with warehouses. Building fell into disrepair. The Gary School, built in 1910, was demolished in 2011.
True Love Missionary Baptist Church purchased the Tierra del Lago factory in 1988 for $68,000, according to Tampa Bay Times archives. The Property Appraiser’s website reports they sold it for $275,000 in 2017 to Jackson’s CTV Capital.
“The building is in good shape, but it is also an eyesore,” Powell said. “We want to take this eyesore and turn it into a pretty princess. It will be beautiful when we are done.”