Have another cigar

Blake Emory attempts an Ybor arts renaissance. Again.

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click to enlarge Blake Emory, 25, inside his new arts space off Seventh Avenue in Ybor City. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
Blake Emory, 25, inside his new arts space off Seventh Avenue in Ybor City.

Blake Emory can't stop smiling.

Sure, it's raining and he's struggling with a lock, while local artist Steve Francois stands behind him filming a documentary on local artists. But that grin never leaves his face.

"I'm really happy the opportunity knocked again," he says, finally opening the metal door and stepping inside this expansive warehouse off Seventh Avenue in Ybor City.

The nearly 10,000-square-foot building is Emory's new opportunity — a second chance for the Ybor Cigar Theater, his answer to the decline of Ybor City's arts scene. Emory, 25, and his brother James opened the first Cigar Theater in October 2006, leasing the 117-year-old Oliva Tobacco Company building off Palm Avenue (see "Lighting Up the Arts," Aug. 16, 2006).

Emory smiled a lot then, too. He had grand visions for the former cigar factory, envisioning a new epicenter for the Ybor City arts scene — three floors of galleries, theatrical productions, concerts and anything else that would attract creative people to the heart of Tampa. He made a deal with owner Angel "Trey" Oliva III to renovate portions of the former cigar factory and pay reduced rent in exchange for a place to throw art shows.

For 13 months, the Emorys lured thousands to the venue for music and performance art shows. They built a recording studio and band practice space. Several artists rented out space to work and show their finished art. For several nights last June, the Emorys' intermedia production "2012: Montezuma's Last Prophecy" lit up a normally quiet part of Ybor, attracting hundreds of art lovers each night.

But last fall, Ybor Realty signed a contract with Oliva to turn the building into a 60-room hotel. In October, the project received unanimous approval from the Barrio Latino Commission, which oversees historical structures in Ybor, and the Emorys and their Cigar Theater got the boot.

"It was going to be a world-renowned, respected venue for arts," Emory said in October after a protest he staged during the developer's meeting with the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association. "It really would've if I had time to build it. ... This building has so much old character, and they're going to turn it into a fucking hotel."

After losing the Cigar Theater, Emory suspended shows until he could find another space. In January, he found it — a vacant warehouse at 17th Street and Seventh Avenue. He approached owner Carlton Brown and signed a lease.

Emory says the new venue, while smaller than the Oliva cigar factory, has some real advantages. The high ceilings and lengthy walls make the building perfect for gallery space. (There are already two murals inside — one idyllic lake scene left from the previous tenants, the other a graffiti-style mural done by an artist from Ybor's Las Vegas Tattoo.) The unbroken floor space lends itself to a huge stage. The location, right off Ybor's main strip with its own parking lot, can't be beat. And the new Ybor Cigar Theater has air conditioning.

"That's a big step up!" he says.

Emory hasn't wasted any time. He's already using the space for filming an independent martial arts film called The Beast of Gods, and as a practice spot for his newest theater production, The Gods' Folly in Creation. On April 4, the Cigar Theater holds its grand opening, a mixed-media event featuring music, art, theater and dance. The event continues for every Friday in April.

"Eclectic shit is going down the whole month," he says, adding there's still room left for sponsors.

When asked what he'll do if the new building is sold and he's kicked out again, Emory's smile fades. "I hope for the best and expect the worst," he says. But then the grin returns. "You don't get to where you're going by giving up easily."

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