EEUU/February 07, 2021/by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor/Source: https://www.businessobserverfl.com/
St. Leo University, behind a $1 million investment, continues the reinvention of a former cigar factory into a high-tech academic center.
St. Leo University President Jeffrey Senese can smell the aroma of a long-held desire to grow the presence of the college in and around downtown Tampa finally coming to fruition.
The source of Senese’s scent of success? St. Leo, the oldest Catholic university in Florida, with a central campus in Pasco County, recently relocated its Tampa Education Center to west Tampa, in the former Berriman-Morgan Cigar Factory. The 1403 N. Howard Ave. blond-brick complex, just off Interstate 275 and built in 1903, gives St. Leo 32,000 square feet of space across four floors. The center, which currently serves more than 300 students, will offer eight classrooms, one of which is a computer lab; student and employee lounges; and a military resource center.
In addition to space, a larger urban presence and continuing a creative adaptive reuse of a building — home to another college first — it also gives the school something else Senese covets: community connection. “It’s a pretty spectacular building for the age that it is,” Senese says. He adds that in a post-pandemic world he’d like to have the forthcoming St. Leo food truck, the Hungry Lion, with sandwiches named after Tampa area historical figures, be part of the downtown campus. “I want to park it there and have it be part of the community.”
Members of the Benedictine religious order founded St. Leo University in 1889, and its residential campus is on 186 acres in St. Leo, north of Wesley Chapel and west of Dade City. The school has an additional 16 locations spread through five states, including Texas and Georgia. It had an education center in the Channelside area of Tampa for nine years. “It didn’t really feel it really didn’t feel like a St. Leo home, a St. Leo campus,” says Senese, 61.
The idea of the former cigar factory as a Tampa home for St. Leo began to percolate in spring 2019. Argosy University, which lost federal funding after accusations of mishandling student loans and closed down, had used some of the building from 2010 through 2019.
Prior to that, it sat vacant for at least three decades, going back to when it was the Berriman-Morgan factory, named for two different cigar manufacturers. At the factory’s peak, up to 1,000 workers rolled more than 11 million Havana cigars by hand each year. Like other cigar factories, the building was constructed with high-ceilings and tall windows, partly so factory workers could have light and a breeze while they rolled and prepared the stogies. The building is also among several cigar factories dotting the landscape between downtown Tampa and the Westshore business district that have eluded the wrecking ball. Preservationists over the years have contended the buildings are almost built too tough to be torn down.
When Argosy left, Senese and the school’s real estate officials contacted their national real estate firm, JLL, to reach out to the building’s owner, Nichols Jammal, a Tampa engineer and property owner. Jammal, through Jammal Engineering, bought the building in 2004 for $600,000, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s office. The building’s market value was assessed at $2.96 million, records show.
‘It’s a pretty spectacular building for the age that it is.’ Jeffrey Senese, St. Leo University
By fall 2020, St. Leo had signed a lease and was ready to begin renovating the space. The school spent at least $1 million on the project, including updating technology, retrofitting classrooms and more. “We’ve never really had a full building like this,” Senese says. “We would be interested in buying it. We’re interested in being there long term.”
That goes back to Senese’s plan to have St. Leo more integrated with the Tampa region. “Moving into this historic building,” he says in a statement, “will give Saint Leo the opportunity to build stronger business partnerships that will benefit our students and alumni.”
The basement and first floor will be home to the Tampa Education Center. The second floor will house the Center for Online Learning, Student Advising, Student Financial Services and executive offices, while the third floor will be home to the Center for Online Learning enrollment team. The school is relocating its online learning call center from Las Vegas to the former Berriman-Morgan building.
With COVID-19 protocols in place, the campus is currently open but at 50% capacity, with every other desk being used and other social distancing requirements. “We’ve had a pretty dramatic reduction,” in people there, Senese says. “There’s way less there now than we’d like it to be when COVID-19 ends.”
When that happens, the school aims to play up the access and convenience factor of the campus, in addition to more space than its previous location. The top majors for Tampa Education Center students, school officials say, are in programs that attract working professionals, who often work full- or part-time, in addition to school. That list includes its MBA program, a master’s in criminal justice and criminal justice-legal studies, a master’s of accounting, a bachelor’s in elementary education, a bachelor’s of social work, and a bachelor’s in criminal justice. About 80% of the Tampa center’s students are working adults.
The Tampa center will also be home to Hiring our Heroes — a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation initiative to help veterans, military members and spouses find employment. St. Leo recently joined the program.
With all that going on, sounds like Senese could be ready to light up a victory cigar. “We are excited to have a new home in Tampa,” he says, “that allows us to be a part of preserving an important part of the city’s heritage.”
Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.