TAMPA — The decrepit building at 1601 E. Columbus Dr. has undergone several name changes since it was erected more than a century ago.
It was initially called the Sanchez y Haya Building.
It became El Avance Restaurant during prohibition and then The Chip-In Bar throughout the 1990s.
The current owner, the J.C. Newman Cigar Co., might bring back the original name once they restore the building and convert it into a cafe, cigar lounge and hotel.
But for now, their employees at the cigar factory across the street from the building have their own name for it.
“The bat cave,” said Holden Rasmussen, who runs the factory’s museum and store.
He estimates it’s infested with as many as 10,000 bats.
Drew Newman, general counsel for his family’s company, believes the number is half of that.
Laura Finn, who is charged with humanely removing the winged mammals, said either of those numbers could be correct. Or the total could be as “low” as 1,000.
“We won’t know until we really get in there,” said Finn, who operates the Fly By Night nonprofit.
The bats, according to Finn, are the size of an adult thumb when sleeping and have up to 10-inch wingspans when flying.
They spend days sleeping in an area between the ceiling and roof of the building’s outdoor balcony and then fly off in search of food at dusk, sometimes in drips and drabs and sometimes like a plume of smoke, Rasmussen said.
The Newman company purchased the building in August 2020 for $650,000, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website.
Restoring and converting it into a cafe, cigar lounge and hotel could cost millions, Newman said. “We hope to complete the project and open by the end of 2023. Our first priority is protecting our colony of bats. We need to safely relocate the bats to bat houses.”
The bat houses will be across the street in a grassy lot that the Newman company owns.
Placed on 24-foot-high poles, each will measure around 2x2x4 foot and fit between 800 and 1,200 bats, Finn said. She won’t know how many are needed until the size of the bat population is determined.
According to literature provided by Finn regarding bat relocation, when bats fly off on moving day, they must seal up the building’s windows and holes and block the balcony, likely with some sort of mesh wire. They will install “exclusion tubes” that remaining bats can use as exits but that cannot be used as entrances. Most of the bats should move to the houses.
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Newman said they will turn that grassy lot into a park from which people can watch the bats fly off each evening.
They do not yet have a date for relocating the bats, but it must be done before maternity season, which spans April 15 through Aug. 15, Finn said. “Doing it during maternity season would cause a lot of death. The pups don’t leave, so they would be left behind on their own.”
Removing the bats will be the easy part of the restoration process, said Kara Guagliardo, director of community engagement for the Newman company.
The building is designated a local historic landmark, but is in such bad shape that “we could easily get permission to demolish it,” Guagliardo said as she pointed out a first-floor support beam that is nearly collapsing. “I think most people would. But we won’t. We’re committed to saving it.”
Sanchez y Haya was the first cigar company to open a factory in Tampa, doing so in 1886.
As Tampa became cigar capital of the world, Sanchez y Haya expanded into real estate, Newman said.
The Newman’s cigar factory, the last operating one in Tampa, was built and originally used in 1910 by El Regensburg & Sons Cigar Company. Sanchez y Haya opened the building across the street in the same year. The first floor was a cafe and the second a 30-room hotel.
“The hotel served visitors to the factory,” Newman said. “It was the first reinforced concrete building in Tampa, making it waterproof and fireproof.”
During prohibition, according to news archives, the first floor was El Avance Restaurant. By day it slung Cuban food and coffee. But, by night, it hosted an illegal liquor operation.
A Tampa Tribune article from 1919 reported that one raid netted police more than 200 gallons of whiskey.
The Chip-In Bar opened there decades later. Newspaper clippings, Newman said, detail shootings, stabbings “and other criminal activity.”
But the building “has been abandoned for a couple of decades,” Newman added.
Enter the thriving bat colony.
“We envision restoring this 111-year-old building to its historic grandeur — bringing it back to life the way it was when it opened in 1910. But we need to safely relocate the bats before we can begin.”