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One Tampa cigar factory burned, but many more still stand

The J.C. Newman Cigar Company has been at it's present location, 2701 Sixteenth Street, Tampa, since 1953. The company began in Cleveland, OH. It is Tampa's last operating cigar factory. The view is looking west long Columbus Drive. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jul. 10, 2015

The V. Guerrieri Cigar Factory in Palmetto Beach, which employed hundreds of workers in Tampa's cigar industry at its peak in the 1920s, is one of the reasons the neighborhood exists at all.

But for several decades since, the old factory sat abandoned and boarded up. And early on the morning of July 5, it went up in flames.

Just like that, one of the last ties to Tampa's industrial past — and a possible piece of its future — was gone.

"I was devastated," said Jennifer Willman, president of the Palmetto Beach Community Association. "It really hit me hard because it was our hope that it would be renovated and it could be a real asset for the neighborhood."

The factory was one of many that dotted the streets of Ybor City and West Tampa, supporting a trade that "put Tampa on the map," said Nicholas Jammal, an engineer who has worked on three former cigar factories.

There are about two dozen left. Some are protected as historic sites. A few, like V. Guerrieri, remain vacant, in varying states of disrepair.

Several, however, are in good condition. Olivia Tobacco Company uses two for offices and warehouse space. One is a church, another a U-Haul storage facility, a third a laser eye institute.

Only one, the J.C. Newman building on N Howard Avenue, is still used to make cigars. The Newmans moved into the building in 1954.

The industry cranked up in the 1880s, when business leaders in Tampa, then a tiny backwater, helped cigar makers move to the city, said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa History Center.

The companies' owners, including Vicente Martinez Ybor, had built several dozen factories by the 1920s. Each ran east to west and had four floors — tobacco was sorted and blended in the basement, stripped from its leaves on the top floor, rolled on the second floor and packaged on the first.

"It was craft work," Kite-Powell said.

As the cigar industry burgeoned, so did the city. From 1880 to 1910, Tampa ballooned from 720 residents to nearly 37,000. The rapid growth not only cemented the city's status as an economic center in the southeastern United States, but also created its identity.

"That was our main product," said Fran Costantino, president of the East Ybor Historic and Civic Association. "Wisconsin has cheese. Idaho has potatoes. Well, Tampa had cigars."

The decade after the peak in the '20s saw the Great Depression, popularization of cigarettes and automation of cigarette rolling. Workers were fired, and most of the cigar-makers eventually moved out.

J.C. Newman now produces most of its cigars abroad, said vice president of marketing Shanda Lee. Still, she said it's an important connection to the company's and Ybor City's roots. The 130 factory workers make cigars today in much the same way they did in 1935. The company also hosts events and partners with local organizations.

"For us, everyone's a neighbor," Lee said. "It's home."

The factories can make business sense too, Jammal said. In 2004, he bought and restored the Historic Berriman-Morgan building on N Howard Avenue, which stood abandoned and deteriorating for decades but now houses the for-profit Argosy University. The building has the same structure as J.C. Newman's; its open floors became classrooms and offices, but you can see the old bricks and fire sprinkler pipes. On the third floor, the smell of tobacco lingers.

"If you can have cigar rollers 100 years ago and students behind computer terminals now, why wouldn't you restore it?" he said.

But several factories have been left to deteriorate. Across from the J.C. Newman building is Perfecto Garcia, built in the 1910s. Its windows are broken and plant life grows freely. The V. Guerrieri building was similarly derelict before it burned down. Fire officials are still not sure what caused the fire, only that the building was too unsafe for firefighters to go inside. They could only watch as the roof and walls caved.

Over the years, Willman said there was talk of turning it into apartments, but nothing came of it.

After the fire, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he told his staff to take an inventory of the remaining factories and look at incentives the city can give owners to restore them.

"It really was a sad day to lose another iconic cigar factory," Buckhorn said.

Dennis Fernandez, Tampa's Manager of Architectural Review & Historic Preservation, said the city is always looking for opportunities to preserve history, but it needs cooperation from property owners. If the factories meet minimum code requirements, the city doesn't have a duty to intervene. The solution, Fernandez said, is to work with businesses to encourage them to redevelop the structures.

"We just saw on July 5th what happens to vacant historic property," Fernandez said. "The best way to prevent that is to have a property that is in use."

That way, Jammal said, the buildings can contribute to the community, and Tampa's history can be preserved.

"When we have a building that's 100 years old and you don't have any other buildings like it, it becomes a jewel that was abandoned, a jewel in plain sight — and they're rare, they're endangered." Jammal said. "If all the buildings are new, there's no art, history and culture."

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