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Mercado Offers Chance at Local Empowerment


For more than a dozen mostly immigrant entrepreneurs, the opening of the Mercado La Paloma near Exposition Park is a first chance to run a formal business here. It's an opportunity that comes with plenty of hand-holding such as subsidized rent, financial consulting and joint delivery service.

But the brightly painted indoor market, which begins weekend previews today and should be operating full time by year's end, is more than a leg up for the restaurateurs, artisans and others who will sell their wares there. It is a community revitalization strategy that pushes the public market concept to a new frontier.

While most public markets, particularly farmers markets, have catered to yuppies from gentrified neighborhoods, La Paloma breaks the mold by locating in the heart of a low-income, largely industrial pocket.

The idea is simple: to cultivate new business owners whose income will stay local, while offering a vital community gathering space and fresh food to a neighborhood where services are sparse. Meanwhile, organizers hope to lure wealthier consumers from USC and Exposition Park, breaking down class barriers and increasing the project's chance of success.

"Here, they'll have the opportunity to see the best that this neighborhood has to offer," said Melanie Stephens, director of community development for the Los Angeles-based Esperanza Community Housing Corp., which created the project. "We're saying, 'Everybody's welcome. Let's not be so segregated economically.' "

The mercado will offer a mix of handmade products. These include cuisine from the Mexican state of Yucatan simmered in banana leaves, beef dishes from the Mexican state of Sonora, exotic orchids, leather goods, fresh juices, and Thai and Argentine fare.

In addition to 15 permanent stalls, a food court and a children's reading area, the market will offer weekend space to part-time vendors. Beginning in April, a Saturday afternoon farmers market organized by the Southland Farmers' Markets Assn. will add fresh produce to the mix in a neighborhood where selection is limited at the few supermarkets that have moved in.

The renovated garment warehouse at South Grand Avenue and 37th Street will also house nonprofit organizations, filling a need for quality office space and linking residents with health, education and other services.

Rents are under $2 a square foot--less than half that of most swap meets and far cheaper than those at the downtown Grand Central Market, a for-profit development that draws throngs but does little to assist merchants.

The assistance to La Paloma merchants, many of whom ran businesses in their home countries but have been working low-wage jobs here, should help spark renewal in the neighborhood.

"If you go to a shopping center or the 7-Eleven, the money gets air-freighted out of town every day. Here it stays local, and that is profound," said David O'Neill, director of the Public Market Collaborative, an arm of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces. "It gives people a sense of local empowerment."

Leonardo Madueno and Gilberto Cetina began preparing traditional Yucatan food several years ago, and it grew into an informal catering venture. But they have no access to a commercial kitchen and can't keep up with orders.

"They gave us the opportunity because this food is different from burritos and tacos," Madueno said.

Many of the merchants--Marta Alarcon among them--learned of the opportunity through Spanish-language television and jumped at the chance to rekindle old dreams. A restaurateur in the Sonoran capital of Hermosillo, Alarcon has worked the last 11 years in a laundry facility. She will run the business with her niece, 24-year-old Gabriela Vasquez, whose brother in Hermosillo will haul beef and other key ingredients to the border weekly for delivery to them in Los Angeles.

The merchants have received training on everything from accounting to how to obtain health permits. They were compelled to draft business plans. Their cash flow will be monitored by a central computer system to catch problems early. And they will share group insurance, a commercial kitchen, credit card and delivery services, and a joint Web site at http: //

Public markets once graced the center of every American city, drawing life to town squares, said O'Neill, who has collected 5,000 postcards of turn-of-the-century markets. They were first revived in the 1970s. Among the better known: Pike Place in Seattle, Vancouver, Canada's Granville Island and Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market, which O'Neill helped rescue from blight. Here in Los Angeles County, there are now 60 farmers markets, a fivefold increase since the early 1980s.

Now, there is a growing push nationwide to take the markets "into the tougher neighborhoods where traditional retailers don't like to go," O'Neill said.

But the projects are complicated to manage because they are so people-intensive. And they are tricky to finance.

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