Controversial cigar bar open for business

By HASKEL BURNS,

A controversial cigar bar has opened its doors in downtown Hattiesburg, two months after Hattiesburg City Council members voted 4-1 to amend a current ordinance to allow the operation of that type of establishment in the city.

The Humidor at Hattiesburg, owned by Matthew Senge – who also is majority shareowner of Smokin’ Aces Social Clubs in Ocean Springs – officially opened for business on New Year’s Eve at 129 Walnut Street. The shop specializes in premium cigars, such as Rocky Patel’s Tavicusa, Alec Bradley’s Magic Toast, and CAO Brazilia.

Council members passed the amendment – which makes an exception to the city’s ban on indoor smoking that was set into effect in 2007 – in early November, and the new measure went into effect the next month.

The day before the amendment passed, Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado, along with several residents and representatives from local health organizations, voiced their concern about the upcoming cigar bar. Delgado provided the sole vote against the measure.

“I think it’s absolutely terrible, and we’re going backwards as a city,” Delgado said Tuesday. “When we adopted the non-smoking ordinance for the City of Hattiesburg, it was my understanding that we were being pro-healthy living, that we were trying to create a healthy environment for the people who lived here.

“So if we are going to sanction or allow for cigar bars, I think we’re just going backwards. We’ve jeopardized the status that we were given because we adopted that (original) ordinance, and I just think it’s awful.”

Senge originally approached the council in October regarding the idea of a premium cigar bar, where he said in addition to cigars, he also would like to incorporate a Cuban coffee bar, craft beer and wine into the shop.

“It’s a place where you can gather, leave your problems at the door, come in and chill and relax,” he told council members. “Seventeen and a half million people smoke premium cigars in the United States, and the tax revenue that I bring to the city of Ocean Springs on yearly basis is between $15,000 and $20,000, so I’m sure the city can find a way to use those funds.”

All smoking is limited to the inside of the building, but customers are allowed to purchase cigars at the shop for consumption elsewhere in private. Cigarette smoking and vaping are not allowed.

In addition to allowing indoor smoking at The Humidor at Hattiesburg, the amendment states that 40 percent of the income at a cigar bar would have to come from tobacco-related sales. Any cigar bar in the city also is required to locate in a stand-alone building, separated from any other establishments.

Mayor Toby Barker, who said the business is good for the city and downtown, made the point that many other cities in Mississippi have much broader exemptions than the one granted by city council.

“We want downtown to be a destination, and we want to be business-friendly,” he said. “Thus far, I’ve not heard any negative feedback on (the cigar bar’s) opening.

“I think that having entertainment venues where people want to go and be in the community, those are positive for the city and for downtown. I believe we vetted that exception very thoroughly, and we still have one of the most stringent smoking ordinances in the state. We want all of our businesses in the city to do well.”

Senge said so far, the reception at the cigar bar has been great, with more than 260 people showing up for a recent UFC pay-per-view event.

"The biggest thing, I think with the mayor and most of the city council, their idea was to revitalize downtown and to bring businesses and nightlife back," Senge said. "I know there was some controversy about the health concerns, but what else can you have but a letter from the FDA, and a senior study done by the National Instititute of Health, saying that one to two premium cigars a day has no evidence of establishing any type of cancer?

"My rebuttal to the whole idea that 'cigars are just a big cigarette' is that it's just a lack of education, because cigars and cigarettes couldn't be further from each other. I would encourage (anyone) to a little research on what premium cigars are - they're not gas station cigarettes, they're not Swisher Sweets, they're not Philly Blunts. They're hand-crafted, and over300 hands touch this cigar before it touches your mouth, so that's the pride and passion that goes into this industry."