Snuffed out

A hotel developer eyes the Oliva Cigar Factory; an artists' collective faces eviction

click to enlarge PROTEST: At a recent Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association meeting, Blake Emory (Satan) stabs James Courtney (Jesus, representing the arts) with the "spear of development" to protest a proposal for the Oliva Cigar Factory. - Courtesy Of Blake Emory
Courtesy Of Blake Emory
PROTEST: At a recent Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association meeting, Blake Emory (Satan) stabs James Courtney (Jesus, representing the arts) with the "spear of development" to protest a proposal for the Oliva Cigar Factory.

After more than a year inside the one-of-a-kind Oliva Cigar Factory in Ybor City, Blake Emory and his artist collective may be getting the boot to make room for a hotel.

Last May, the 24-year-old artist and his brother James made a deal with owner Angel "Trey" Oliva III to renovate portions of the 117-year-old building — at Palm Avenue and 18th Street — and pay reduced rent in exchange for a 30,000-foot space to throw art shows (See "Lighting Up the Arts," Aug. 16).

They named it the Ybor Cigar Theater, and for the past 10 months, the Emorys have attracted thousands to the historic landmark in an attempt to revive Ybor City's underground art movement.

But in May, Ybor Realty signed a contract with Oliva that gives it exclusive purchasing rights to the building for the next six months. Ybor Realty wants to turn the former factory into a 60-room hotel.

"Our goal is to restore the building, but change it, obviously, to a hotel use," says William Dobson of RBK Architects, which designed the project for Ybor Realty.

"I'm afraid if it wasn't for a hotel use, there wouldn't be anything done with it," he says of the cigar factory.

But not everyone agrees. Besides the Emorys, the Ybor City Museum Society had been trying to acquire the building — one of only two remaining wooden cigar factories in Florida — for four years. Their idea: Re-create a working cigar factory and join the building with others on the block for a historical state park. In 2005, the Society received a $10,000 grant to pay for design work. The renderings were finished late last year. Through the Trust For Public Lands, they were prepared to buy the building in 2008.

Oliva says he gave the arts group and the museum a chance at purchasing the building, but they didn't come through with the money fast enough.

Emory, who has found a new space in the old Masquerade building, says the whole situation epitomizes Ybor City's neglect of area artists.

"This city needs some underground artistic community," he says. "If you drive all the artists out, there isn't going to be a culture here."

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