Hillsborough County Preserves Past for Sake of Future

An acclaimed program helps restore and repurpose historic properties

Hillsborough County doesn't just revere its history. It strives to protect, restore, and build upon it.

Since 2012, the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners has awarded more than $5.7 million to 80-plus buildings, landscapes, and sites, and to promote heritage tourism. This year the County budgeted $1 million for the effort, called the Historic Preservation Challenge Grant Program.

Economic Development oversees the program. Along with preserving and restoring historic properties, the goal is to find productive uses for them that benefit the local economy.

The Lions Eye Institute's purchase and restoration of the former F. Lozano & Sons cigar factory is one success story. The eye bank and ocular research center, with about 60 employees supporting transplants and analysis, now occupy the red-brick structure at 1410 N. 21st St. in Ybor City.

Since 2014, Hillsborough County has contributed to the 1907 factory's restoration with grants to:

  • Replace 131 windows with modern, energy-efficient ones
  • Build a staircase at the main entrance, with handrails and lighting, that complies with modern codes
  • Repair roof overhangs, gutters, and soffits

Jason K. Woody, president and CEO of the Lions Eye Institute, says the meticulously restored cigar factory exudes a sense of Tampa history and community. That's what the nonprofit institute was seeking when it moved to the building a dozen years ago from the West Shore business district.

"We thought it was a great place to call home," says Jason, a fourth-generation Tampa resident. "You think of all the people who contributed to the community who worked here. We're providing a service, just like they did."

The building also previously housed a casket factory and Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission operations. On tours of the building, some people are so interested in the structure's history it's necessary to shift their focus to the Lions Eye Institute's work.

The Hillsborough County Challenge Grant Program has been a big help with the restoration, Jason says.

The interior of the Lions Eye Institute recalls Hillsborough County's storied cigar-making history.

The program aims to promote historic preservation, heritage tourism, and economic development by supporting adaptive uses for non-residential historic properties throughout Hillsborough County. The government provides matching funds up to $250,000 per year for a selected project. The grant money pays for infrastructure and energy-saving elements, not aesthetics.

Among other projects that have received Challenge Grants: Plant Hall on the University of Tampa campus, Tampa Jewish Community Center (former Fort Homer Hesterly Armory), and the Al Lopez Baseball Museum.

Economic Development works closely with government counterparts in Tampa, Temple Terrace, and Plant City, and with private developers and nonprofit groups. The Counselors of Real Estate recognized Hillsborough County Preservation Challenge Grant Program Manager for her work.

Photo information: The Lion's Eye Institute located in Ybor City was restored with a Historic Preservation Challenge Grant.