Tampa once boasted 200 or so cigar factories, churning out the prized stogies in competition with New York City and Key West for the U.S. cigar capital. Today, only two dozen or so remain and most are in West Tampa.
Preservationists and city officials are debating the best way to preserve those remaining examples. A few are renovated and in use: Barbara Baker's Morgan cigar factory on Howard is home to her cigar museum and promotional services company; the Santaella on Armenia Avenue was restored by Bubba Ellis as a working furniture factory with artists' studios on the second and third floors; and the former Andres Diaz factory on Habana Avenue was rehabbed lavishly for use by the Church of Scientology.
But other factories remain vacant with uncertain futures. The city has proposed allowing cigar factory owners to choose not to follow historical preservation rules, and that has drawn protest. Preservationists are circulating petitions and speaking in schools to educate people about the value of these historical structures. They say voluntary preservation doesn't work and point to the fate of the 1917 Renaissance-style Maas Bros. building in downtown Tampa; its owner fought against historic designation, promising to preserve it anyway. But it is being torn down after sitting vacant for years, the victim of "demolition by neglect" when its condition got so bad it was deemed unsalvageable.
Some cigar factory owners have hired a property rights lawyer and argue that government shouldn't take the value of their buildings (through restrictive preservation rules) without compensating them.
A few in West Tampa advocate a more pragmatic compromise: Either provide development incentives for factory owners to preserve them or buy one factory to preserve as a museum for the public and let the others redevelop at will.
The Tampa City Council is expected to revisit the issue in August.