Is Tampa still the Cigar Capital of the World?


When the landmark cigar maker Hav-A-Tampa announced plans last week to shut down operations in its namesake city, those smitten with Tampa’s reputation as Cigar City lamented the loss.

Stogies helped transform “Tampa town” from a sleepy fishing village with 700 residents in 1885 to a thriving city of 108,000 two decades later. Back then, 159 factories employed some 13,000 workers as cigar rollers and tobacco strippers.

A century later, only one major cigar manufacturer remains, leaving some to wonder: Is Tampa still the Cigar Capital of the World?

“That’s been gone for a long, long time,” acknowledges Patrick Manteiga, editor and publisher of the 87-year-old trilingual newspaper, La Gaceta. It was founded by his grandfather – a former lector who read to cigar makers while they toiled in the factories.

Labor strikes, the Great Depression, two world wars, the Cuban Embargo and taxes all helped snuff out the local industry, he said. Smaller operations, what Manteiga calls “buckeyes,” still exist, but Tampa can’t compete with the cheaper Central and South American companies.

Despite the dramatic decline in local production, cigars remain an integral part of Tampa’s culture.

“There used to be cigar factories on every corner,” recalls Carlos Fuente Jr., a fourth-generation cigar manufacturer whose grandfather started Arturo Fuente cigars from the family’s Ybor City home in 1912.

The industry was the backbone of society in Ybor City and West Tampa. Factory workers from Spain, Sicily and Cuba built wooden casitas for their growing families, creating diverse enclaves where bakers, fish mongers, butchers and haberdashers opened shops.

Social organizations including Centro Asturiano and the Italian Club provided members with lifelong medical benefits, serving as the nation’s first managed health-care systems. Residents ate Cuban sandwiches and drank café con leche at The Columbia, and watched the Tampa Smokers play baseball.

By 1929, 500 million cigars were produced in Ybor City’s 151 factories and contributed to a little more than half of the city’s revenue, says Chantal Ruilova Hevia, executive director of the Ybor City Museum Society. That monumental achievement earned Tampa its title Cigar Capital of the World.

Today, the industry is credited with helping Ybor City become a National Historic Landmark District. Even some of the businesses born in the era are still around: The Columbia, La Segunda Bakery, La Gaceta and the social clubs, outliving the factories that gave them life.

“That’s what built Tampa,” says Fuente, 54, who has kept his company offices in Ybor City. “It’s sad to see it fading away.”

Like many local cigar manufacturers, Fuente moved production of his grandfather’s famous cigars from the Tampa area to the Dominican Republic in 1980. Today, he has factories in four Latin American countries employing some 2,500 workers.

In 1996, Fuente partnered with J.C. Newman Cigar Co., a 114-year-old family operation led by its third-generation and the owners of Tampa’s only working cigar factory.

“We’re the last ones,” says executive vice president Bobby Newman from inside his office at 16th Street and Columbus Drive. “The last of the Mohicans.”

News of Hav-A-Tampa’s closing after 107 years in Tampa hit him hard.

“Of course we’re concerned,” says Newman, who runs his family’s company with older brother Eric.

Five hundred people won’t have jobs. And yet another factory folds, in part, due to unfair taxation, he says. Federal and state tax increases went into effect April 1, almost doubling the price of some cigars and making it harder on manufacturers and retailers already suffering from a lackluster economy.

Hav-A-Tampa’s owner, Altadis USA, attributed most of its 30 percent drop in sales to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program or SCHIP, a federal tax that provides low-income children with health insurance.

“The government is meddling in our business,” Newman says, before taking a call from his mother.

Beside him lays Millie, a snoring golden Labrador retriever sprawled across a giant cushion. Hanging on a wall above him is a framed photograph of Millie and his father, Stanford, who died at the factory at the age of 83 – just like his father, J.C., who died there two months after his 90th birthday.

It’s a strong work ethic the 58-year-old Newman hopes to pass down to his two young sons, Dawson and Paxton, who may fill their father’s shoes someday.

John Oliva Sr. hopes his son, John Jr., will take over the 75-year-old Oliva Tobacco Co. someday, too, but he worries like everyone.

“It’s not just Hav-A-Tampa,” says the 67-year-old Oliva, whose father, Angel Sr., started the business. “Hav-A-Tampa is just the beginning. We have been affected astronomically since the April 1 tax.”

Sales are down 30 percent mainly because a guy buying an 80-cent cigar now has to pay $1.20 plus a markup, he says. “Now that’s a 50 percent increase.”

“It’s definitely affecting the business, it’s definitely affecting Tampa and it’s definitely going to affect Newman,” Oliva says. “It’s very difficult to watch this. Yeah, it’s real tough. It’s not as much fun – there’s so much bureaucracy.”

But Tampa will always be Cigar City, he says.

“It’s history, and you can’t change history.”


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