JMA Inc. includes, from left, Job Captain Manuel Alvarino, Safoura Kazemilari, intern architect, Jerel McCants AIA, LEED Green Associate, principal-in-charge, and Project Manager Terry Miller.

By Clint Confehr

TAMPA, FL — Count this Tennessee State University graduate as a happy man now. He’s still doing what he wants.

“I always knew I wanted to be an architect,” Jerel McCants says at his East 7th Avenue office in Ybor City, an historic part of Tampa where cigars were made.

Now, it’s a nightclub district with Cuban and Latin American eateries, boutiques, vintage shops, and second-story offices, including JMA Inc.

Jerel McCants Architecture was selected last year by the TSU Foundation to design what’s to be the Amos and Brenda Otis Alumni Center in Nashville where John A. Merritt Boulevard meets 31st Avenue. It was about the time McCants’ firm became 10 years old.

Everyone in business knows what happened after the housing bubble burst. Tight credit

Jerel McCants Architecture of Tampa, Fla., includes, from left, Job Captain Manuel Alvarino, Safoura Kazemilari, intern architect III, Jerel McCants AIA, LEED Green Associate, principal-in-charge, and Project Manager Terry Miller.

stopped new construction. Despite the Great Recession, McCants’ education and good nature brought staying power. It helped that he likes his work, but, “It was scary,” McCants recalls. “You didn’t know when you’d get paid.”

He: went without a biweekly pay check for eight years; worked from a home office; and was a licensed engineer in 2008. His graduate school friends were talking about opening a firm.

“Everybody was out of work,” he said. “Some firms went down to the original partners, so we had to make our own work.”

When Americans built additions instead of buying new homes, McCants served residents, churches and other non-profit groups. “A disabled veterans organization needed a handicap ramp,” he said, recalling one project. His circle of friends grew, as did his small business.

McCants’ first office apart from his home, was in a leased open-space for three small firms. “I had an assistant. Another firm had two. The third was solo.”

Ybor City (pronounced E-Boar, as if it were an electronic wild hog) has big factories once filled by cigar manufacturers. During the Roaring Twenties, Ybor City made more cigars than Cuba. Shopkeepers serving cigar workers lived above their stores. JMA Inc. is in such a place, now surrounded by the hip district of Tampa.

Read for more about his firm.

After earning his bachelors of science degree in architecture and engineering at TSU, McCants went to the University of South Florida, graduating in 2001 with a masters degree in architecture.

When he was two years old, his mother and Chattanooga businessman father noticed his art was of patterns and forms; even more so in kindergarten.

“I didn’t know what it was, but I always liked to put patterns and shapes together,” McCants said. In a Boy Scout Explorer Post, he learned from architects and engineers. He was an intern while at Chattanooga’s Tyner High School. McCants attended a two-week summer program at TSU in 1991. During grad-school, he was an apprentice at a Tampa firm, and continued there into 2008.

Early last year, the TSU Foundation called him to meet with Amos and Brenda Otis near Washington, D.C. Amos Otis is a foundation trustee. He and Brenda own SoBran Inc., a government contracting company. They’re providing $1 million for the planned alumni center. The foundation wants to include more TSU graduates for the project, McCants said.

“Buildings are complicated now,” he said. “It takes a lot of people. There could be up to 50 people participating in the design process.”

With 6,000 square feet of enclosed space for receptions, offices, conference and service areas, the planned building is to have a 2,000-square-foot observation deck with a roof. A ceremonial ground-breaking was held during TSU’s homecoming last year.

Clint Confehr

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...