Posted by: Heather Rubio on Monday, October 7, 2019

For the 50 classmates of Leadership Tampa Class of 2020, Arts & Culture Day brought to life the rich history of Tampa and how it formed the city into what it is today.  The perseverance of early Cuban entrepreneurs who settled here instilled in their subsequent generations an entrepreneurial spirit of hard work, family values and teamwork and allowed them to establish successful businesses.  However, all of them overcame adversity in one way or another.


The City of Tampa was built on an economy of cigars, phosphate, and military.  The businesses that thrived here survived on hard work, perseverance and joining together during difficult circumstances.

“Tampa is the anti-St. Augustine” – Brad Massey, Tampa Bay History Center

The Spanish settled in St. Augustine, but Tampa, by contrast, was a settlement of Cubans who were displaced first to Key West and then to Tampa.  A series of Spanish came to Tampa in the early days of exploration, but they were always unsuccessful against the Indian population here.  As a result, the Spanish never returned to settle in Tampa.  The Seminole Indian Wars began a slow trickle of settlers into Tampa because Fort Brooke was a staging area to fight the Seminoles.  One of those settlers was a pirate named Juan Gomez.  Gomez told stories about a pirate named Jose Gaspar, which created a myth that is still celebrated today in Tampa.

When Henry Plant built the railroad in Tampa, it changed the city by allowing the phosphate and cigar industries to flourish.

Vicente Martinez Ybor was a Cuban cigar manufacturer who fled from war in Cuba. Ybor originally set up business in Key West, but after encountering labor issues, eventually came to Tampa in 1880, negotiating land for his cigar factory for $4,000.


The signature for Ybor’s initial land transaction with the Tampa Board of Trade, along with many of Ybor’s business transactions, are found in the Tampa Board of Trade books in the Tampa Bay History Center. 

Tampa became known as “Cigar City”.

“The Cigar industry was the economic engine of the city” – Eric Newman, J.C. Newman Cigar Company

By 1894, there were more than 150 cigar factories in Tampa, producing more than 18 million of the hand-rolled cigars the area become famous for.

Another Cuban who settled in Tampa in the 1890s was Casimiro Hernandez, Sr, great grandfather of Richard Gonzmart of The Columbia Restaurant, a restaurant that is synonymous with Tampa today.  Hernandez Sr. opened a brewery called Columbia Saloon.  Then came prohibition.  In what would be the first of many ways this business faced adversity and persevered, Columbia Saloon merged with the café next door in order to survive. The new Columbia Café was open 24-hours a day and was the main place Tampa’s cigar workers came to eat.

Meanwhile, Vicente Ybor became more than just a cigar factory owner.  He was a benefactor of the city, selling homes to most of the workers in his factories.


Vicente Ybor was such a well-loved patriarch of the city that all of the cigar factories shut down the day he died on December 14, 1896, so the cigar workers and the entire town could join the procession from Ybor’s home all the way to the Oaklawn Cemetary. 

As the cigar industry flourished in the United States, there were five main cigar companies dominating national sales and smaller factories struggled to compete.  But one company in Tampa’s “Cigar City” made a name for itself as a premium hand-rolled product.  Two struggling cigar companies, J.C. Newman Cigar Company and Arturo Fuente Cigars joined forces to stay afloat.


Today Fuente Cigar Company is thriving and has a reputation as one of the world's finest hand-rolled cigars. 

“Fight, determination, love for the business and trying to make it work” – Cynthia Fuente, 3rd generation owner of Fuente Cigar Company says of the reason her company survived.


Richard Gonzmart, now 3rd generation owner of The Columbia Restaurant, believes it’s important to preserve the history of Tampa by telling the stories of the families who banded together to overcome hard times.

“If you want to be different in your business, you’ve got to do that which others aren’t willing to do” – Richard Gonzmart, The Columbia Restaurant Group owner


Richard Gonzmart speaking at The Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City which has come a long way from when it opened in 1903 as a 24-hour cave for cigar workers with no front door. 

Cynthia Fuente, a 3rd generation owner of Arturo Fuente Cigar Company, grew up in the cigar business. Fuente remembers the values her parents and grandparents instilled in her from a young age being love, respect, dignity, and trust.  Even the kids worked in the factories rolling cigars.  And the company that her grandfather started with seven employees now employs 1,100 people, three of the original employees are still with the company today.

“Through any obstacle, he fought and fought” - Cynthia Fuente, speaking of her grandfather Arturo Fuente, Cuban founder of Fuente Cigar Company

Arts in Tampa

The Cuban American history of Tampa permeates the artistic community of the city.  As the LT'20 group toured the Tampa Museum of Art, they encountered amazing works by Cuban artists (among others).

“Art should be in every conversation your companies have. Artists process the world differently” – Michael Tomor, Tampa Museum of Art Executive Director


LT'20 class members even got to create a work of art of their own