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3 competing visions for Ybor factory
Artists, a museum and a hotel developer vie for the Oliva Cigar Factory.
By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
Published May 15, 2007
TAMPA - Three stories tall, Tampa's only surviving wooden cigar factory stands within stumbling distance of the Ybor City entertainment strip.
Built in the 1890s, the Oliva Cigar Factory remains mostly untouched by time. The main galleria, where workers rolled cigars, is still wide open.
Who wouldn't want a piece of the Oliva?
Board members at the Ybor City Museum thought they were well on their way to buying it.
A colony of artists knew that. But they, too, dreamed of calling the factory their own.
It was sort of a love triangle, until a mysterious out-of-town suitor - a hotel developer - showed up and made it a square, even signing a contract.
"If they are in fact going to do what they say, it's going to be a beautiful thing, " says owner Angel "Trey" Oliva III. "No doubt in my mind."
Six years ago, he moved his office and his family's cigar storage operation to West Tampa, leaving the factory empty.
This past month, the hotel developer made an offer. Oliva would not disclose the developer's identity, but he said it was "nobody local."
Under the terms of the contract, the developer would have six months to explore whether it makes sense to put a hotel on the site, while still preserving the factory building.
Parking could be the biggest obstacle. The city requires one space per room and one-half a space for each employee. Now, the lot is barely big enough for a dozen cars.
It's a common problem for cigar factories, said Nicholas Jammal, a local engineer who owns the Berriman-Morgan cigar factory in West Tampa. "None of them have the amount of parking we need today."
Where some see a possible obstacle, others see a glimmer of hope.
No hotel? No problem, say backers of the Ybor museum's plan.
"We invested hundreds of hours of volunteer time into developing a fundraising plan, " said Ybor City Museum board president Dale Swope. "So at this stage, we will continue working against the possibility that that contract does not close for any number of reasons."
Four years ago, the museum envisioned an acquisition. It shares a block with the cigar factory at N 18th Street, and the purchase would mean that the entire block would become a state park.
The idea was to re-create the working cigar factory, house exhibit space and host community meetings.
In 2005, the museum scored a $10, 000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to pay for design work. Land-use plans, architectural renderings and site plans were finished six months ago.
They depict the cigar factory as the highlight of a larger museum expansion project, which would incorporate Centennial Park and add more historic casitas -small houses - to the area.
Oliva told the museum he wouldn't be able to sell before 2008.
Then, last week, they learned about the hotel.
"It came a little bit as a surprise, " Swope said. Owners never told the museum that the sale process was accelerated, he said.
"It just hasn't come to fruition, " Oliva said about the museum's plan.
Swope counts the Olivas among the museum's supporters.
He understands they have a right to sell their building.
He just wishes his group was the one buying it.
"It seems counterproductive to ruin perhaps the most important remaining historic structure just to create another hotel, especially because there are so many parcels of vacant land, " Swope said.
The cigar factory is designated as a historic landmark, so it isn't in danger of being bulldozed. But Swope says, "the open gallery where the cigar makers worked - to change that into a series of 15-by-15 cubicles with sheet rock seems like a great loss."
The artist colony
For the first time ever, the long-haired artists who shower in the back yard of the cigar factory agree with the museum.
"It's going to be a waste, " said Blake Emory, a 24-year-old artist who moved into the cigar factory eight months ago.
Emory, a musician, artist and show producer from Plant City, fell in love with the building last June. He and his brother James have dreamed of creating an art colony since they were kids.
Oliva worked out an arrangement with them, and every month, their rent has varied, depending on how much money they made from rock concerts, art shows and rental of gallery space.
Emory, his brother, cousins and friends moved in. They shoveled out debris, replaced old floors on the first level and rewired the electricity. They made it an artist's playhouse.
Now, local artwork lines the walls. Drum sets and electric guitars fill a makeshift recording studio. A 20-foot dragon remains from a February performance, and a papier-mache mushroom is slowly becoming an Aztec god for a June show.
If Emory were given 10 years, the place would be an arts mecca, he said. But he doesn't have $1.3-million to buy it.
When developers came to take measurements inside, Emory didn't let them in. He knows he has to next time, but he says his friends will dress up like voodoo priests to scare off the developers.
"They're trying to drive all the artists out of Ybor, " Emory said. "Then talk about how good it used to be."
Oliva said he has invested much of his own money in trying to sustain the factory building as an art venue and says he will continue to try.
"I really don't see how to get money out of this whole art thing, " Oliva said. "It needs support from people from Tampa. I just don't know where they're at."
Emory is leasing the space until 2008, and plans to take advantage while he has it. He says he's thankful Oliva let him in.
Maybe it will all work out, Emory said. "The ghosts are on our side, anyhow."
In June, Blake Emory and his friends will host four nights of music, art, theater and dance called 2012: Montezuma's Last Prophecy. Performances are June 8, 15, 22 and 29. Doors open at 9 p.m. and the performances begin at 10. For more information, call (813) 770-2163.
Voice your opinion
To vote in a Times poll about the fate of the Oliva Cigar Factory, visit hillsborough.tampabay.com.