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Relighting the Cigar

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  • | 7:13 a.m. March 18, 2011
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  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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When Centro Ybor opened in 2000 as a planned revival project for Tampa's Ybor City historic district, it was intended as a can't-miss retail and entertainment complex with popular shops, restaurants and a 20-screen Muvico theater. New space was added to complement the historic Centro Espanol building, which was built in 1910 and had its own theater and ballroom to host the district's cigar workers.

Everything that could go wrong with the 210,000-square-foot complex seems to have, starting with a development loan default in 2004 that put the city on the hook for $16 million, and ending with a deep recession that decimated many of its tenants in recent years. Muvico and the Improv comedy club are its only original residents, with empty space dominating the complex for a time.

Now it appears Centro Ybor is being re-stoked as an urban office center, both through creativity and necessity. M&J Wilkow Ltd., a Chicago-based investor that bought the property for $13 million in 2006, saw office conversions early on as a means of turning it around.

The strategy is taking hold, with five office tenants taking up 31,800 square feet during the last three years and another 12,800 square feet currently being marketed. At least 11,800 square feet of prime corner space will soon be added to the mix with the pending departure of Urban Outfitters.

The new Centro Offices on 8th Avenue are being marketed to the types of firms that don't necessarily fit into typical Tampa business districts like downtown or Westshore. Spaces offer modern conveniences combined with the old-brick charm of the city's chief cigar district, which dates as far back as 1886.

“You have the feel of an old building with the amenities of newer space,” says Jim Crews, a broker with Tampa-based Bishop & Associates who serves as Wilkow's local office leasing representative. Besides showing available space, he points to existing offices converted from spaces where trendy stores and restaurants used to be.

A prime example is Florida Business Interiors, which now occupies 5,500 square feet of upper-floor space in the Centro Espanol building where Big City Tavern used to be. High ceilings and tall windows allow plenty of natural light into the space, with modular furnishings replacing the martini bar.

“It has such a coolness factor,” Kevin Baker, president of FBI's Tampa division, says about the space. “It's been one hell of an attraction and retention tool.”

FBI had prior experience converting century-old space to modern use, having relocated from the nearby Ybor Square buildings that housed the city's original cigar-making operation. It became a tenant at Centro Ybor sort of by default, with the Church of Scientology buying Ybor Square for its own purposes.

Other office tenants at Centro Ybor include Tampa Digital Studios, which took up 10,850 square feet previously occupied by American Eagle Outfitters; ChappellRoberts, a public relations firm with 7,700 square feet; and Gerard Alexander Consulting Group and Gra-Fx Design, with nearly 4,000 square feet each.

David Harvey, senior vice president of M&J Wilkow, says existing tenants promote Centro Ybor's office space as much as its brokers, adding that “they do more for us than we could do on our own.” He says his firm has been confident in its investment all along and can sense a turnaround under way.

“We've done very well in respect to the kinds of deals we've made here,” Harvey says. “We'd like to do more.”

Bill Pate, an independent retail broker at Centro Ybor, says remaining space is available for up to 5,300 square feet of shops or restaurants. Tribeca hair salon has replaced the former Victoria's Secret, he says, and Samurai Blue sushi cafe recently renewed its lease.

“The smart tenants are the ones making the best deals now,” Pate says. “We think we're on the right path.”


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