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Tobacco farm, thousands of bats, and more coming to new Ybor City district

It will all be part of what the Newman cigar family calls the El Reloj District, named for their factory topped with a clock tower.
Jon Clifford, 60, of Brandon, who works as a security guard at J.C. Newman Cigar Co., shows the tobacco plants he’s grown in the Tampa company’s parking lot.
Jon Clifford, 60, of Brandon, who works as a security guard at J.C. Newman Cigar Co., shows the tobacco plants he’s grown in the Tampa company’s parking lot. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 17|Updated Jan. 21

TAMPA — For decades, the Newman family has owned the vacant lot neighboring their Ybor City cigar factory, the last operational one in Tampa.

They’ve never done anything with the land.

“All it’s had is what we call Newman Lake,” laughed Drew Newman, general counsel for J.C. Newman Cigar Co. “But that’s just a giant puddle formed after a storm.”

Newman Lake will soon be filled in, and that corner of Ybor at North 15th and 16th streets and East Columbus Drive will be transformed.

Within the next few years, it will have a park, bat houses for thousands of the winged creatures, an inn, a cigar bar, a cafe and what might be Ybor’s first-ever tobacco farm, all of which will form what Newman calls the El Reloj District.

El Reloj is Spanish for “clock” and the name of the Newman’s factory topped with a clock tower.

“Oddly enough, our part of Ybor City does not have a formal name or a neighborhood association,” Newman said. “V.M. Ybor is to the west. The Historic Ybor Neighborhood Association is south of I-4. We think that this name is appropriate because, a century ago, all the houses and commercial buildings around us were built to support and service the factory.”

J.C. Newman Cigar Co. in Tampa.
J.C. Newman Cigar Co. in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Ybor was once a fluid walking district spanning Adamo Drive to the south to 21st Avenue to the north, but that changed when the interstate was erected in the 1960s.

“It ripped through Ybor City and divided our community in two,” Newman said. “In the decades that followed, the vast majority of development in Ybor occurred south of the interstate. Our part of Ybor City has been overlooked and forgotten for decades.”

The Newmans began to change that three years ago when they opened their factory at 2701 N 16th St. to visitors via tours and a cigar museum.

Last year, according to Newman, they welcomed more than 10,000 visitors and hosted 22 weddings and dozens of other private events.

But when visitors leave, there is nowhere within walking distance for them to go next, Newman said.

An artist's rendition of Cigar Workers Park to be located next to the J.C. Newman Cigar Factory.
An artist's rendition of Cigar Workers Park to be located next to the J.C. Newman Cigar Factory. [ Courtesy of J.C. Newman Cigar Company ]

That should change by May 5, the Newmans’ planned opening day for their Cigar Workers Park at 1530 E Columbus Drive, the lot that is currently home to Newman Lake. Besides green space and benches, the park will boast a sculpture of a tobacco leaf made up of hands that symbolize those who have rolled cigars in Ybor since the 1800s.

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“There have been hundreds of thousands of people who’ve worked hard in the cigar industry, day in, day out, to create some of the world’s finest cigars and make Tampa world famous,” Newman said. “Most of those people, they’ve toiled in anonymity when they should be celebrated.”

The park will also feature the bat houses.

Beginning in March, thousands of bats will be moved into those from the vacant building across the street at 1601 E Columbus Drive.

Built in 1886, the building originally housed the Sanchez y Haya real estate business, but more recently was Chip-In Bar, which brought crime to the neighborhood.

The Newman family is converting it into a 15-room inn with a cafe and cigar lounge.

“We hope that it will be open for our company’s 130th anniversary in 2025,” Newman said.

Bats can be see leaving the Sanchez y Haya building at sunset  in Tampa.
Bats can be see leaving the Sanchez y Haya building at sunset in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Next to the inn, at 1509 E Columbus Ave., will be what Newman said could make history as Ybor’s first tobacco farm.

“If there was ever one, I am unaware of it,” he said.

The Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite-Powell agreed.

“I can’t recall any in Tampa or Hillsborough County,” he said. “All cigar factories in Tampa used Cuban-grown tobacco until the embargo.”

After the embargo, a family provided some Tampa factories with tobacco grown in the Florida towns of Havana and Quincy.

The Newmans purchased a 20-by-40-foot Civil War era tobacco barn that was on the Quincy property. It’s now in storage, but will later be moved to their future farm property to be used to dry and hang tobacco grown on that 10,000-square-foot lot.

They hope to have the first crop planted next year.

The tobacco will then be used for a line of cigars, possibly named for bats, Newman said. “My hope is that we can tell the story of Tampa’s historic cigar industry from seed to ash.”

Tobacco plants growing in J.C. Newman Cigar Co.’s parking lot in Tampa.
Tobacco plants growing in J.C. Newman Cigar Co.’s parking lot in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The Newmans have a test crop growing in six raised garden beds in their factory parking lot.

“We’re learning how tobacco grows in Tampa’s climate,” Newman said. “No one has really ever done this before, but so far, so good.”

The park, inn and tobacco farm might not be the Newmans’ last addition to their El Reloj District.

They’re in discussions with a beekeeper to bring a hive to their farm to help pollinate the field and create a line of honey.

And, on parking lot land at 2618 N 17th St., they might one day add a mixed-use development with retail, commercial and housing.

“This is our neighborhood,” Newman said. “People live here. Families live here. It’s a rich part of Tampa’s history. It’s improving, and we want to do our part.”