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Variety of Uses Are Put Forth For Old Bartow Cigar Factory

An art studio . . . a tea room . . . a school . . . a retail center . . . a conference center . . . a performing arts venue . . . a museum . . . or more likely, a combination of several of these uses, dominated a 90-minute forum Wednesday night on possible ways to rescue Bartow's historic Thompson Cigar Factory from the wrecker's ball.

A group of 35 to 40 Bartowans attended the forum at the Crawford Agriculture Center to explore the feasibility of renovating the deteriorating building, located at 255 North Third Ave.

Bartow's Community Redevelopment Agency has established for itself a March 24 deadline to decide if it is feasible for the CRA to take over the county-owned building and see it converted for public or private use.

Those who attended the forum appeared to be nearly unanimous in the belief that it should - and probably could - be done.

The first big question: where would the money come from to restore the building. The two-part answer: from an all-but-promised $350,000 matching grant from the Florida Dept. of State and a contribution by the county commission of up to $200,000, the estimated cost of tearing down the structure. Promises of volunteer labor to rid the building of pigeon droppings and asbestos also could be applied against the matching grant.

The second big question: what use could the building be put to that would justify the expense of restoring it. Bill Melvin and Ken Atkins, cousins who discovered that a relative, E.E. Skinner, was superintendent at the factory in the 1920s and 1930s, and have spearheaded the drive to rescue the building, outlined their proposal:

B Retail use or a Luster All Vocational Training School on the ground floor, perhaps with a coffee shop or tea room operated by a Luster All culinary school.

B A conference room or a performing arts center on the upper level.

B Perhaps a wine distribution facility in the basement.

Finding the most appropriate uses for the building is more of a challenge than restoring it, said Atkins.

The Thompson building is one of only two of its type in the state, he said, and state officials have assured him that an application for state matching funds to restore the building would be moved to the head of the list.

Disclosing a heretofore little known aspect of the factory, Atkins said the Bartow plant "was built in an effort to break the labor unions" by introducing automated equipment to roll cigars. It outproduced some of the larger and better known factories in Tampa's Ybor City, where row upon row of workers hand-rolled cigars, he said.

Atkins said that allowing the building to be destroyed "would be a crime against the city of Bartow."

In opening remarks, Terry Hunter, chairman of the CRA board and an architect who specializes in restoration of historic buildings, said the Thompson building "is almost beyond saving," primarily because of failure of the roof on the north side of the building and the buildup of pigeon droppings.

But he said the building "has a significant architectural style."

Olga Gentner, who showed several photographs of herself and her co-workers at the plant, taken in 1946, said her task was to package cigars in sleeves, being careful not to scrape the outer layer of tobacco.

Other audience comments:

B Paula Davis: the building could become a magnet for people interested in historic architecture, and could become a retail building like The Barn, a popular antique store in Lake Alfred.

B Larry Albritton: the restoration effort needs to be pushed "as fast as we can" to block demolition of the building.

B Gil LePlance, a European by birth: in Europe, the building, which dates back to the early 20th century, would be considered relatively new. "It's an awesome building with so much potential."

B Richard Bassett, representing the Bartow Art Guild: the building could be used for art classes, the performing arts, rotating art exhibits, and a studio in which artists could create their work.

B Betty Hill, also representing the art guild: the guild is outgrowing its small building on the campus of the old Bartow Memorial Hospital. She suggested a tea room with an art display.

B Robert Henry: "We need everyone's support to be sure the county does not tear it down."

B Dr. Pedro Almazan, who fled Cuba to become an American citizen some 50 years ago: the cigar factory "was the first Cuban influence in Bartow. These were our first ancestors, the first group of Cubans. This building is part of our (Cuban) heritage. The cigars were as good as the ones made in Tampa."

B Miriam Rowell Barrett: her mother worked at the factory for 25 years as a bookkeeper; she suggested that the Thompson Cigar Co., which is still in business, be asked for financial support for the restoration.

B Terry Pittman, county commission facilities management director: the county doesn't have the money to make even temporary repairs to stem further deterioration of the building, but is in no hurry to tear it down. His primary concerns are the environmental hazards and the advancing state of disrepair.

B City Commissioner Adrian Jackson: "a solid business plan" is needed for operating the building, and a decision needs to be made on whether the building would be for private or public use.

B Harvey Lester, owner of the Luster All school: his 10-year-old school trains people for service jobs, including food service; the building "can draw the whole community together."

In adjourning the meeting, Hunter, the CRA chairman, said:

"Something needs to happen very soon or it's a lost cause."

The CRA board will make its decision at its March 24 meeting at 8 a.m.

Source: Polk County Democrat