It's not quite the football stadium that Irwindale once dreamed of, but Los Angeles County's biggest swap meet is about to spring from the remains of a quarry pit, now a palm-lined expanse of asphalt.
L.A. International Marketplace will open this weekend, a 64-acre weekend swap meet built atop a former quarry. Its size and number of vendors--more than 800 are expected to be set up by today--will make it the region's second-biggest swap meet, exceeded only by the Orange County Marketplace. And if its developers are able to follow through with plans to nearly double the number of stalls, it will take the crown for itself.
The Irwindale swap meet also promises to be one of the sprucest, with the developer sinking millions into visitor facilities and decorative landscaping, including 88 Canary Island date palms that stand 50 feet high.
The goal, founders say, has been to create an oasis out of the blandness of the swap meet's surroundings--rock quarries, light industry and the San Gabriel River Freeway.
The swap meet, with space for slightly fewer than 900 vendors, will have an automated teller machine, electrical service throughout, a shaded grass area for weary shoppers, several bathrooms, a pickup zone for shoppers, a sales and business office, and a 6,000-square-foot tent for special events such as estate sales.
Also, operators say they may create a section at the swap meet for used merchandise.
The site will be used as a swap meet on weekends and as a weekday food stop for truckers and Irwindale businesses, according to officials of Marketplace Enterprises, the swap meet's operator. A Mexican grill, Texas barbecue, New York deli and a '50s hot dog and hamburger restaurant are planned for the site.
When the gates open to visitors at 7 a.m. today, shoppers will face dozens of rows of vendors selling mostly new merchandise, from rock animals to dishware to socks and stereos.
L.A. Marketplace founders want everything about their marketplace to be or seem new. They have spent about $4 million to develop the site along Live Oak Avenue west of the San Gabriel River Freeway. The goal: create the world's fanciest swap meet.
"This isn't a drive-in theater, this is a real market that's probably the only one in the country that's landscaped," said L.A. Marketplace general manager Wayne Ambrose.
Arcadia natives Dennis Newell and Jim Mnoian, both developers, teamed up in 1992 to launch Marketplace Enterprises. With Southland construction sagging, both were looking for creative ways to make money. Newell headed construction while Mnoian provided much of the financial backing for the project.
If shoppers flock in big numbers, Newell and Mnoian will have realized their dream on a plot of land directly across the street from Irwindale's biggest nightmare--a huge quarry pit that city officials dangled in front of the Los Angeles Raiders several years ago as a potential stadium site. After the city spent $10 million to woo the team, the Raiders backed out of the deal.
"The swap meet is the best thing that's ever happened over there," said Joe DiShanni, executive director of the Irwindale Chamber of Commerce.
The L.A. Marketplace site is in the city's redevelopment area, but no financial assistance was offered. The city hopes to receive about $350,000 in sales and business taxes from the swap meet in its first year of operation.
With free parking for 3,000 vehicles, operators hope 8,000 to 10,000 patrons will show up to haggle for vendors' wares each weekend day. Admission is $1 for adults, free for children under 12.
L.A. Marketplace officials hope to eventually rival the regional granddaddy of swap meets--the 60-acre Orange County Marketplace in Costa Mesa. That swap meet draws thousands of shoppers and about 1,200 vendors each weekend to the Orange County Fairgrounds and is one of the largest swap meets in the western United States.
But backers of Irwindale's swap meet hope to outdo the Orange County Marketplace by creating space for more vendors and playing on an international theme.
What worries vendors and swap meet operators these days, though, is the lingering recession and growing competition among Southern California swap meets.
Swap meet vendors and operators in Southern California say their sales have plummeted in past years.
"You're not going to get rich in the swap meet business anymore--business for all of us has been dropping since about 1989," said one longtime general merchandise vendor who has been haggling over wares at San Gabriel Valley swap meets for about 20 years. He asked that his name not be used.
Chris Rivera, 33, is a fledgling vendor who will be selling Avon products at the L.A. Marketplace.
He said he is taking a risk because "the recession has been hitting hard--I don't know if people will spend the money these days or not. I may end up stopping on the corner on my way out of here and selling it all for half price."