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Fight on to save old cigar factory

Two residents who found a family link want to spare the mission revival-style building in Bartow from demolition. They have a reprieve.

A county-owned historic building that served as a cigar factory for more than 30 years could be spared from demolition if an assembly of local residents can find an appropriate suitor and use for it.

The Thompson & Co. Cigar Factory, on North Third Avenue in Bartow, is one of two remaining industrial buildings in Florida that are mission revival-style architecture.

The factory, completed in 1925 for the Cuban American Cigar Corp., employed about 150 people who manufactured about 100,000 cigars a day, according to a national historic report. The factory operated until 1961. The building then served as headquarters of Bartow's American Legion Post 3.

In the 1970s and '80s, Polk County took ownership of the building and used it as a social-services warehouse. It was closed in the late 1980s because of environmental contamination concerns, including asbestos and pigeon droppings.

In July, county commissioners unanimously voted to have the building demolished because of public health concerns.

"The costs involved in bringing [the building] back . . . far exceed the value of the building," said Jim Freeman, deputy county manager.

Meanwhile, two residents -- Bill Melvin and Ken Atkins -- were researching family documents and learned a relative was superintendent of Cuban American Cigar, and that the building still existed.

"We believe that we were led to that cigar company," said Bill Melvin, who lives in Winter Haven.

After learning about the historical significance of the building and the pending demolition, the relatives decided they wanted to try to save it.

So, at a recent County Commission meeting, Melvin and Atkins asked the board to delay the demolition and give them time to create a business plan for the cigar factory.

The commission, at its Aug. 29 meeting, granted Melvin and Atkins 60 days to come back with a plan.

Now, they are working with Main Street Bartow and the Bartow Community Redevelopment Agency to find a way to preserve the building and determine who can buy it.

"These are the things that make our small towns meaningful," said Commissioner Jean Reed at the board meeting. "I'm just thrilled that this has come about."

The "old cigar factory" -- as it is often referred -- was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002 and is an example of a fully mechanized cigar factory in Florida.

But being placed on the historic registry does not prevent buildings from being demolished.

Jim Duane, executive director of the Bartow CRA, said various groups have shown interest in restoring the cigar building.

But, he said, "no one could come up with a use that was viable for the cost it was going to be to renovate that building."

"There just never was a good plan that came forward."

Duane said the CRA, like Main Street Bartow, which encourages historic preservation and the city's revitalization, would like to see the building preserved.

But Main Street's Mikel Dorminy said taxpayers shouldn't be burdened.

"The key is a viable business plan," she said. "I think that's going to be the key to the community's support . . . that we have private investors."

Source: Orlando Sentinel