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West Tampa hopes CRA will bring back bustle to district

WEST TAMPA — Cigar factories once checkered the landscape of this Tampa neighborhood, and the Main Street business district bustled with restaurants, bakeries, groceries, shops and department stores.

With a street life as lively as Ybor City's, West Tampa — incorporated as an independent municipality in 1895 — once held the distinction of being Florida's fifth largest city.

The city of Tampa annexed the community in 1925, and West Tampa remained vibrant until the cigar industry was slammed with the double-whammy of the Great Depression and the cigarette craze.

By the end of World War II, factories were closing one after the other. The business district steadily faded. The vibrance became the subject of old stories.

But with Tampa City Council's designation of West Tampa as a "community redevelopment area,'' the historic enclave may be in for a renaissance, re-energizing Main Street.

"I would like to see it like another Seventh Avenue,'' said Audrey Perez, who chairs the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce's community and economic development committee.

"Main Street and Howard Avenue was the heart of West Tampa,'' said retired Judge E.J. Salcines, a Tampa history lecturer who grew up in the neighborhood during the 1940s and '50s.

Salcines' father owned a department store on that corner, and businesses stretched both ways along Main and Howard. The July 4th Cafe, which remains a fixture in the district, was an early morning coffee stop for the factory lectors who read newspapers and books to cigar makers as they worked.

Salcines said the neighborhood needs what it had then — "people and businesses'' — to bring it back to life.

That's the hope at the heart of the City Council's move, which dedicates money generated from rising tax values in the area to improving the neighborhood. It opens the way for grants to refurbish storefronts, landscape thoroughfares and even spruce up homes in the specially designated district.

The council set the district's borders as the Hillsborough River to the east, Kennedy Boulevard to the south, Columbus Drive to the north and Armenia Avenue to the west.

Perez and her colleagues at the chamber, president Leo Alvarez and executive director Bob Garcia, would love to see the western border extended to Dale Mabry. That, they say, would extend improvements along Columbus Drive, another major thoroughfare that was once called "Boliche Boulevard'' for the number of Spanish restaurants there.

"You have the mom-and-pop businesses, the La Teresita, bodegas, meat markets and small groceries,'' Alvarez said. "I shop and use them all the time.''

Grants to improve the facades along the main streets are going to be important, he said, "in giving that clean appearance so that it will have a 'wow' factor.''

Garcia would like to see better public transportation: "It would enhance the neighborhood two-fold: the individuals would be able to afford better housing because they wouldn't need two cars.''

Perez said the redevelopment plan could mean increased police patrols and code enforcement.

"That's exactly what West Tampa needs,'' she said. "They need to bring it back to where you don't mind walking down Main Street.''

The chamber will be among eight West Tampa organizations and three citizen members serving as an advisory committee, which will come up a with a series of strategic action plans, perhaps encompassing five years each, to recommend to the City Council.

The council, sitting as the West Tampa Community Redevelopment Board, must approve all expenditures. The council will make appointments next month.

Neighborhood enhancements are expected to be modest at first because money has to build up in a trust fund. Money dedicated to the trust fund will be the difference between tax valuations in the area during the base year — yet to be determined — and valuations in years to come.

"It's not a quick fix. It's a 30-year program,'' Perez said. "I don't believe we'll see really great benefits for eight to 10 years.''

It's hard to predict when the spark will come, said Jeanette Fenton, who will manage the West Tampa redevelopment district for the city. She pointed out that the Ybor City Community Redevelopment Area was created in the 1980s, and improvement was slow going.

"All of a sudden it hit that critical mass, and it's booming.''

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

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