West Tampa art commune wonders what future holds under new landlords

Published April 13 2018

TAMPA — Since 1998, the Santaella Studios for the Arts on the second and third floor of the 114-year-old A. Santaella Cigar Factory has provided cheap month-to-month leases on 25 no-frills suites for creatives.

In turn, they have transformed that brick building into a bohemian jewel alongside a West Tampa road best known for speeding cars.

But last month, the three-story, 58,000-square-foot building at 1906 N Armenia Ave. was sold to new owners with big plans that have tenants both enthusiastic and worried about what the future holds for them.

Building improvements are needed, but the photographers, painters, sculptors, writers and other resident-artists now wonder how changes will affect the affordability and serenity they enjoy.

"This place is a hidden gem and any change is scary," said Gene May, a commercial producer and event coordinator who has rented studio space there since 2011. "The upgrades the new owners want to make work great for me so I’m excited, but will they work for everyone? And what will this mean for rent?"

Michael Hettrich, who with his business partner Philip Farley III purchased the cigar factory for $3.2 million, says his vision includes air conditioning for all, landscaping, a new elevator and bathrooms, improved interior and exterior lighting and a fix up of anything in need of repairs.

The artists "have fundraisers here every year and then they use the money to do things like replace lighting," said Hettrich said. "They won’t have to do that anymore. If we do a fundraiser, it will benefit them."

The building will also have a new name - the Ampersand Cooperative.

While no Santaella artists would share what they pay for rent, they said the former owners, Ellis-Van Pelt Inc. — who declined to comment — founded the studios to support the arts and not turn a profit.

Hettrich estimates he could spend as much as $1 million on the building.

Will that plus the purchase cost mean rent goes up? Will the current month-to-month leasing that provides financial flexibility continue? All Hettrich would say for now is that the top two floors will remain art studios.

"I am going to polish this jewel," said Hettrich, whose St. Petersburg company Octillion design + build has the motto, "We build cool stuff" and whose past local clients include Kahwa Coffee. "I am going to make it look awesome."

The garden level basement and first floor where the ex-owners ran a furniture business will be merged and made into one multi-tier level for an event space, micro-brewery, cafe and marketplace that on weekend nights will expand to the parking lot and be available to resident artists and outside vendors.

That obviously expands sales opportunities for artists, said producer May, and he will make use of the events space. Still, he wonders about those who need quiet and solitude to work.

"This all sounds amazing," said Kerry Vosler, who since 2009 has rented at Santaella to paint portraits and teach art. "I just hope they are able to maintain studios that are workable for the artists."

And despite their ambitious plans, both new owners have battled legal problems on past ventures.

In February, Farley pleaded guilty to negligently causing the release of asbestos when he developed St. Petersburg’s Urban Style Flats apartments.

In 2015, according to court records, Hettrich’s Artisan Group in Cook County, Illinois was ordered to pay a client nearly $424,000 in damages for fraudulent construction services. And in October in Pinellas County, Hettrich was charged with one felony and six misdemeanors stemming from contracting without a license.

At least one tenant says the changes won’t work for her. So, she is leaving.

"I was already thinking about working from home," said painter Stephanie Ong who rented at Santaella for five years. "This made the decision easier. It sounds like a lot of construction and I don’t want to deal with that. I wish the new owners well. They sound great."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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