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New life for West Tampa

Residents and business owners are gaining steam in their efforts to revitalize the historic neighborhood west of the Hillsborough River near Interstate 275.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 1, 2002

WEST TAMPA -- When George Smith walks down West Tampa's Main Street, he sees thriving businesses in empty storefronts and new houses on trash-strewn lots.

He sees entrepreneurs in unemployed laborers.

He sees many of the traits that make communities great, but he also knows the realities of West Tampa.

"It's almost been at a standstill since I was a child," said Smith, 34, who grew up in the neighborhood and owns the Westside Barber Shop on Albany Avenue. "Not a lot of businesses have opened and survived. That's sad."

But he insists the prognosis looks good. For proof, he points to Hyde Park and Ybor City -- two communities transformed.

"I remember when Hyde Park was just like West Tampa. Now look at it," said Smith, president of the West Tampa Business Alliance. "Life can be brought back to West Tampa, but it's a slow process."

Smith heads a pack of community leaders and business people trying to revitalize the historic neighborhood west of the Hillsborough River near Interstate 275. Efforts began in earnest a few years ago, and now are gaining steam.

"A lot is happening in West Tampa," said Shirley Foxx-Knowles, development director for the Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League. "Look out. It's coming back."

Some of the projects in the works:

The Urban League is moving into the historic Centro Espanol de West Tampa building.

Hillsborough County is renovating and expanding the library.

The city of Tampa is upgrading storefronts.

The U.S. Post Office may open a new branch.

Private parties are buying and renovating old stores and cigar factories.

West Tampa was one of Florida's fastest growing cities until it merged with the city of Tampa in 1925.

In West Tampa's heyday, its shotgun homes and apartments housed thousands of immigrants who worked in local cigar factories, shopped along Main Street and socialized in clubs.

The neighborhood began to decline in 1930s and '40s as the cigar industry modernized, workers left for other jobs and families drifted toward the suburbs. Businesses closed and buildings fell into disrepair.

Local activists say restoration of those buildings is key to West Tampa's future. Many cringe when they see the wrecking ball.

"We need to make up for so much lost time," said property owner Franklin Sebastian.

In the heart of West Tampa, Hillsborough's oldest library is getting a $2-million facelift. Built in 1913, it is one of only two operating Carnegie libraries in Florida.

Hillsborough County received a $40,000 grant from the state Department of Historic Preservation to reroof and replace the mortar between the bricks. Construction began last fall and should be done this summer. As part of the grant, the county chipped in another $40,000.

Crews will also start work on a 5,000-square-foot addition on the west side of the library. The new wing will house the collections, leaving the existing building as a community meeting space. The project is scheduled to be done in December 2003.

Next door on Howard, the city is working with the U.S. Post Office to open a new, larger branch on nearby Armenia Avenue.

"It's time for West Tampa to get a new post office," said City Councilwoman Mary Alvarez, who grew up in the neighborhood. "They put them up everywhere else."

To stimulate businesses, Alvarez helped set aside about $100,000 in city grant money to spruce up building exteriors along Howard. Eleven businesses applied, but just one, Kitchen Machine Repair Co., received funding. Depending on the impact, the city may help others with matching money.

Alvarez said the program was intended to assist several businesses, but it ran out of money. The Hispanic Business Initiative Fund, a nonprofit group overseeing the renovations, ended up spending a large chunk of the $100,000 on salaries, leaving only $44,000 for the facades, she said.

"I was kind of disappointed," Alvarez said. "But that one building alone is generating a lot of interest."

Work on the building at Howard and Spruce Street began in January. Crews are replacing the windows and doors, and restoring the brick.

Owner Bill Arragon said he hopes the new facade will spruce up the street and draw more customers. Since opening six years ago, he redid the roof, the electrical system and the plumbing, but couldn't afford to renovate the outside.

"These things take time," he said, "but everybody wants to see the neighborhood returned to its original glory."

Leading the charge is graduate architect Franklin Sebastian. He and his wife, Nancy, moved to West Tampa 18 months ago with aspirations of making the area a more attractive place to live and work.

They consider the old cigar factories and shotgun houses the area's most precious jewels.

"I think the neighborhood has incredible potential," he said. "It's been woefully neglected."

In 2000, Sebastian and a partnership of architect students, called the VIA Group, bought the Bustillo y Diaz building on Albany Avenue. The 32,000-square-foot building housed a cigar factory until 1953, then a sports apparel company.

The group has renovated some of the three-story building and is looking for tenants to lease offices or gallery space. Once rented, the group can continue the restoration.

In the meantime, Sebastian has his eyes on an old commercial building on Main Street. The pea-green building has space for about six small businesses, but needs about $25,000 worth of improvements. The selling price: $100,000.

Sebastian has been working on a deal for months, but can't get a loan. Bankers simply don't want to take the chance, he said.

Public perception is one of West Tampa's problems. Many consider the area a haven for drug dealing and crime. Case in point: A few days after the city started fixing Arragon's building, someone threw bricks through the new windows.

Locals say the stereotypes are largely unwarranted. Sure, West Tampa has crime. But so does Ybor City and other parts of the city.

DeVara Sims-Hendriex, the community relations police officer assigned to West Tampa, said race is more a factor than crime. The area is predominantly black, isolating it from much of Tampa's white elite.

"It's an up and coming area but the reality is race. No one wants to say it, but I will," said Sims-Hendriex, who is black.

West Tampa was founded in 1892 by immigrants from Spain, Cuba and Italy. Blacks established their own population and, today, immigrants are still coming, from Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Peru, Puerto Rico.

Community leaders say keeping that ethnic flavor remains central to any revival.

"We want to bring in houses so that everyone can afford them," said Henry Gonzalez III, a member of the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce whose family has owned the Henry Gonzalez Plumbing in West Tampa for 75 years. "We don't want to lose the fabric that's there."

The chamber is working with the city to set standards for houses and businesses through an overlay district. They want developers to add houses that compliment existing ones, with their front porches and back alleys.

The city has lent millions of dollars for home buyers and renovations of old homes, but much more needs to be done. Zoning setback rules make it nearly impossible to build on empty, narrow lots scattered throughout West Tampa.

"It's not a wealthy area, but we would like to see our businesses prosper and citizens to have nice accommodations" said Mercy DiMaio, acting head of the West Tampa Community Development Corp. and longtime resident. "We need more visibility."

Central to that plan is Centro Espanol, a former social club for Spanish and Cuban cigar workers. Built in 1912, the building at Howard and Cherry Street was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

The Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League bought the building a few years ago and plans to use it for offices, a job training center and, if funds permit, a community theater. The league raised about $4.5-million in donations and loans to cover the basic renovations, and needs another $3-million to restore the theater.

The league, currently on Nebraska Avenue, plans to move in by the end of the year. Fund-raising problems stalled the project for months, but officials say they now have the money to proceed. Construction is expected to resume in about a month.

"It's going to be a jewel for West Tampa," Foxx-Knowles said. "A lot of people are looking at Centro as a catalyst to get a lot done."

Several private projects also bring promise of renewal.

Joe Timberlake and Jeff Darrey recently bought a former barbecue restaurant at Howard and I-275 and plan to turn it into a coffee shop called Indigo Coffee.

Project planner Michael Horner said the barbecue building will be demolished and replaced with a small drive-through for coffee and pastries. It will add life to a corner that's been abandoned for months.

On Main Street, strip club owner Joe Redner purchased a vacant lot at the urging of the West Tampa Business Alliance. The group, which helps local businesses, wants to build a park on the site for community festivals and events.

Redner said he acquired the land as an investment and as an opportunity to help the community. He considers West Tampa's decline a "sin."

"I think someone needs to show the city what they naturally should be doing more," he said. "Why not develop where it's needed?"

Alliance president George Smith said he hopes the park will attract businesses and show others that West Tampa is serious about improving. Walking past discarded couches and litter, he acknowledges it won't be easy.

"It's a difficult problem . . . but we've got to keep at it," he said.

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- Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or

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