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One of Tampa's original cigar factories could soon be a boutique hotel

The historic Tampa Cuba Cigar factory once owned by the Balbin Brothers sold this week for $1.4 million. The three-story building is 35,000 square feet and could become a hotel. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
The historic Tampa Cuba Cigar factory once owned by the Balbin Brothers sold this week for $1.4 million. The three-story building is 35,000 square feet and could become a hotel. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published Nov. 18, 2016

TAMPA — They've been turned into offices, schools, restaurants and luxury apartments. And now one of Tampa's original cigar factories could soon be a boutique hotel.

The former Balbin Bros. Cigar Factory at 1202 N. Howard Ave. was purchased for $1.4 million this week by a partnership between a Tampa hotelier and a Louisiana-based hospitality company. Though still in the early stages, plans call for a hotel with about 70 rooms that likely will be part of a major chain but with a name reflecting its local heritage, partner Mike Desai said Friday.

In its first Florida venture, Desai's My Hospitality Hotels was attracted to the location just south of Interstate 275 because of the Jewish Community Center nearing completion and a 198-unit apartment complex planned nearby.

"Everything is moving north on Howard because everything south of Kennedy (Boulevard) is already developed,'' Desai said. Although the immediate neighborhood is run down, "what we're anticipating and hoping for is that some of the surrounding area gets bought up and a few nice restaurants come in to clean up the area. We're hoping that JCC, the apartments and even this hotel could help boost the area a little.''

Read more: Cigar factories, key pieces of Tampa's past, are for sale

Dating to the early 1900s, the 35,000-square-foot factory hit the market late last year for just over $2 million. It was built in the traditional way, with a high-ceiling interior and tall windows on the north and south that allowed breezes to blow through and provided plenty of light for workers who sat at benches while a lector read to them.

"It actually is in surprisingly good shape,'' Desai said. "I think the structure of the roof limited a lot of deterioration of the building . . . We don't anticipate too many problem but it's like opening a can of worms with an old building.''

With architects and engineers yet to do their work, the total cost of the project is unknown. "It's going to be way up there,'' Desai said. "I think it's probably more costly than building a new property.'' Renovations could start in the middle of next year, he said, and take six to nine months.

Desai's company, which is in partnership with Sheila Patel of Tampa on the cigar factory project, currently has hotels in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi under the Marriott, Hilton and Holiday Inn names. It is looking at other sites in the Tampa Bay area; it considered a cigar factory in Ybor City but ruled that out because "we didn't feel the location was easy access,'' he said.

Of the 200 or so factories that operated during Tampa's cigar-making heyday between 1885 and the Great Depression, only about 25 survive. Vicente Martinez Ybor's original factory, rechristened Ybor Square and anchored until recently by a Spaghetti Warehouse, is now owned by the Church of Scientology. An engineering firm, Argosy University and Lions Eye Institute are among others that have repurposed factories for their own uses.

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The extant factories "are important for the history of Tampa," Dennis W. Fernandez, manager of Tampa's historical preservation department, said for a story last year. "It was a major industry (that) brought a lot of attention to Tampa as the cigar capital of the world and caused further interest in bringing other (businesses) here to continue to grow Tampa at a critical time."

As for the factory that could soon be a hotel, will it have a cigar bar?

Desai said plans haven't gotten that far yet.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate