Rays stadium might be the answer to Ybor City identity crisis

Old buildings in Ybor City fall under the bulldozer as part of the federally funded urban renewal program in 1965. New construction was supposed to replace them soon afterward but it would take decades for that to happen.
Old buildings in Ybor City fall under the bulldozer as part of the federally funded urban renewal program in 1965. New construction was supposed to replace them soon afterward but it would take decades for that to happen. [ Times (1965) ]
Published Feb. 27, 2018|Updated Apr. 21, 2020

YBOR CITY — The Tampa Bay Rays like Ybor City for a new ballpark. So do political and business leaders working to make it happen here. The project would pour hundreds of millions of dollars or more into an area centered on the district's southwest corner.

And it would open yet another chapter in the story of efforts to find a lasting identity for Ybor City, the area of just under a square mile stretching roughly from Nebraska Avenue east to 22nd Street, from Interstate 4 south to Adamo Drive.

Campaigns have been launched in modern times to brand Ybor City as an artists district, an entertainment district, a commercial and retail center, and more recently, a hip place to live.

Not since the 1950s, with the decline of the hand-rolled stogie business that gave birth to Ybor City around 1885, has the area held a legitimate claim to the title, "Cigar Capital of the World." Yet "Cigar City" remains its most enduring label.

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"The neighborhood has struggled ... to find an identity," said Manny Leto, director of marketing at the Tampa Bay History Center. "People have fretted over what Ybor City should or shouldn't be and how it should be marketed and promoted."

A potential new baseball brand already has arisen, RayBor City, but will it come to fruition? An effort is underway to build vital corporate support for a Rays relocation from St. Petersburg, dubbed "Tampa Bay Rays 2020." And the team has to figure out what to build.

Meantime, here's a look at makeover attempts since the cigar industry flamed out.

Modern City, late 1950s.

Approved by the Tampa City Council, the Urban Renewal program provided states with federal grants to purchase and demolish property in downtrodden areas like Ybor City then find developers to rebuild.

Ybor was touted then as a potential "Modern City," but without any plan for getting there. Parcels turned vacant in the mid-1960s but new development never materialized, leaving a scarred and empty landscape.

"When we think of urban renewal, we think of a limited time in the '50s and early '60s," said Andrew Huse, a historian with the University of South Florida Special Collections Department. "But the hangover lasted into the '80s and '90s."

College Town, early 1970s.

After flirting with the idea of turning Ybor City into a center for bloodless bullfighting, district leaders turned their attention to bringing the main Hillsborough Community College campus to their community.

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Ultimately, a site on North Dale Mabry Highway was chosen but Ybor City did win a satellite campus. The vision was students frequenting local cafes as the anchor retail businesses needed.

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They did, but not enough.

"Most students didn't want to stay in Ybor because it was a rough place," USF's Huse said. "They went to class then went home."

Arts Haven, 1970s

Artists were unafraid of Ybor City's reputation, and in the 1970s, taking advantage of cheap rent, they opened galleries and moved into the dilapidated buildings.

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These creative denizens also threw wild art-themed parties that drew thousands of people, giving rise in October 1985 to the first Guavaween festival, now Ybor City's signature Halloween-time event.

They succeeded in turning Ybor City into Tampa's arts district and brought life back to the district, leading to the next transformation.

Party City, 1990s

Once the artists showed people would visit Ybor City, purveyors of alcohol followed, turning historic buildings into watering holes and clubs.

"Restoring an old building and making money off it is expensive," said Pat Manteiga, third generation owner of the weekly Ybor City newspaper La Gaceta. "Bars were really the only business that could afford to do it."

By the 1990s, widespread restoration was underway in Ybor City and it was emerging as Tampa's Bourbon Street, welcoming tens of thousands of revelers weekend nights. Seventh Avenue closed to vehicles Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights so bar hoppers could walk freely from one to the other.

Money was being made for the first time since the cigar era, but many were unhappy with the beer-soaked identity and again sought change.

Family Friendly, 2000s

City leaders wanted to soften Ybor City's image by making it friendlier for families, tourists and residents, so they sought to add daytime appeal that would expand on its reputation for nightlife.

Along came the public-private undertaking known as Centro Ybor in 2000.

Today, the 210,000-square-foot commercial complex remains controversial because the city ultimately had to take over the developer's $16.3 million loan.

But Vince Pardo, manager of the Ybor Development Corp. when Centro Ybor opened, credits the project with inspiring the new construction that immediately followed — including two 1,200-space city parking garages and condominium buildings throughout the district.

"Centro Ybor was a private development in the center of Ybor," he said. "It gave other developers confidence to build there and potential residents and visitors amenities they wanted like a movie theater and restaurants."

Leto, with the history center, said, "Centro Ybor was the realization of a decades-long push to transform Ybor into a draw for tourists."

Mixed-Use, today

Ybor City has grown into an urban mix of commercial, retail and residential uses with a small-town feel, due in part to the way it has retained a little something from each re-branding.

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Family-owned retail shops, art studios and culturally diverse restaurants line the main thoroughfare of Seventh Avenue, surrounded by neighborhoods of people who work and play in Ybor City. It's still home to plenty of bars and HCC students clearly feel safer to hang out their after class.

Another renaissance is underway with a half-dozen residential developments and some 30,000 square feet of commercial space under development.

"Even without the stadium, a lot is going on," said Manteiga with La Gaceta. "I expect the Ybor population to double or triple in the next few years."

And that will transform Ybor City once again, in response to this local demand.

"Will they tire of loud bars, want more retail?" he said.

If a Rays stadium does come, more change will follow — directly from fans flocking to the games and other uses scheduled there and indirectly from the spinoff that development that proponents of the stadium see as a key component of any financing plan.

"Ybor has always been a town of development," said Joe Howden, a longtime resident of the district. "Ybor is now this interesting stew of all kinds of things. How much will a stadium change the neighborhood? It worries me."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.