A marketplace 7+ years in the making, CentroVilla25 aspires to build wealth, meet community needs

Transforming a vacant warehouse in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood, CentroVilla25 will feature 20 micro-retailers, a commercial kitchen, a specialty grocery store, and an outdoor plaza. The project’s leaders and supporters hope it will improve access to fresh food and build wealth in the neighborhood, all while representing and celebrating Latino culture.
The H.J. Weber building is the future home of CentroVilla25 marketplace, set to break ground in early 2023. (Photo by Mandy Kraynak)

While on a trip to Mercado Central in Minneapolis, Jenice Contreras had an “aha moment.” As she toured the colorful market and met with local business owners, she got inspired to bring something similar to her hometown. That trip sparked the idea for CentroVilla25 in Cleveland, a development project that is more than seven years in the making and targeted to open for business in 2024.

After coming home from her trip, Contreras learned more about ethnic markets and how they thrive. Their “secret sauce” is giving diverse entrepreneurs a starting point and the resources needed to grow, she said. Contreras, the executive director of Northeast Ohio’s Hispanic Business Center, decided she wanted the nonprofit to bring a similar idea to Clark-Fulton, the Cleveland neighborhood where she grew up. 

CentroVilla25 is a $10 million project to transform the former H.J. Weber building, a vacant 32,500-square-foot warehouse located at 3140 W. 25th St., into a Latino marketplace. The marketplace will feature 20 micro-retailers, a commercial kitchen, a specialty grocery store, and an outdoor plaza. It will also house the Hispanic Business Center’s office, a business innovation center, and neighborhood offices for Metro West Community Development Organization and the Cleveland Housing Network

The Clark-Fulton neighborhood, also known as “La Villa Hispana,” which means Hispanic village, has the largest density of Latino residents in Ohio, Contreras said. The city of Cleveland also gained more than 9,000 Hispanic residents between 2010 and 2020, according to the 2020 census. Overall, Cleveland lost 6% of its population during the same period, and Cuyahoga County lost 1.2% of its population. 

Now, Cleveland may be able to capitalize on the inspiration of Mercado Central and the growth of its Latino community to create a central market of its own. Contreras said CentroVilla25 could be an economic driver for the region as well as a place for Latinos to call home. “The Latino community has aspired to have a place and really plant roots in the community for over four decades,” she said. “And CentroVilla is the first real, physical manifestation of that.”

An artist’s rendering of CentroVilla25, slated to open for business in 2024. (Courtesy of CentroVilla25)

Toward groundbreaking

Forty businesses have already signed letters of intent expressing interest in opening at CentroVilla’s 20 available kiosk spaces, the project’s capital campaign manager Gladys Santiago said in a virtual briefing. The marketplace aims to meet the needs of the Clark-Fulton neighborhood by building wealth and supporting Latino-owned businesses, improving access to fresh and culturally significant food, and representing and celebrating Latino culture. The project has weathered the Covid-19 pandemic, yet leaders must raise additional funding to break ground next year. 

The CentroVilla project has $7 million in funding so far, and the Hispanic Business Center is in the middle of a capital campaign to raise the remaining $3 million. The goal is to secure the rest of the funds by the end of the year and break ground during the first quarter of 2023, with a grand opening in the spring of 2024, Contreras said. 

CentroVilla has received $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from Cuyahoga County, as well as dollars from corporations such as the Cleveland Clinic, Sherwin Williams, and KeyBank. Other sources of funds include foundation grants and development tax credits. The project is also raising funds through a crowdfunding campaign that encourages 100 individuals to pledge $5,000 each (so far, they’ve raised $161,000 from 27 donors, Santiago said). 

During the construction phase, the project will generate $12.6 million in Cleveland and $28.4 million across Ohio, according to the project’s website. The project is slated to create 190 jobs: 120 in Cleveland and 70 more across the state. Once CentroVilla25 is open, it will generate $50 million in economic impact in Cleveland and $114 million across Ohio in the first five years, its website says. 

Fundraising has been a major challenge for the project, however. Contreras said the pandemic contributed to these challenges. Also, as a Latina woman developing a nonprofit project in a low-income community, she said does not fit the standard developer profile. The project “needed to be owned and operated by the community it’s intended to serve” to preserve authenticity, control costs, and push back against market prices that could drive up prices and push residents out, she said. 

According to data from the Center for Community Solutions, Clark-Fulton has a median income of $26,140 compared to the city of Cleveland’s $30,907. Nearly 40% of its residents live in poverty, and 70.4% live in or near poverty (under 200% of the poverty level), compared to the city of Cleveland’s 32.7% and 57.7%, respectively. Yet Clark-Fulton, which is targeted for revitalization by the city, has seen substantial development, including MetroHealth’s Glick Center Hospital slated to open later this month. Contreras said as surrounding neighborhoods become developed and run out of space, demand is driving up home costs and rents in Clark-Fulton.

Last Wednesday, vendors and entrepreneurs gathered at the future home of CentroVilla25 for the Small Business Seeds for Growth showcase and resource fair. (Photo by Mandy Kraynak)

Bringing businesses in and up

Luis Roman is a local entrepreneur who is confirmed to open a specialty grocery store at the market where people can buy fresh produce, including hard-to-find Caribbean food items. Roman said the area is a “food desert” because it has limited access to fresh, healthy food. “As a New Yorker, I always took for granted that I could just run to the corner and get what I needed,” he said. 

Tanisha Velez, owner of the microgreens business Cleveland Fresh, is interested in becoming a kiosk vendor at CentroVilla25. She said Cleveland Fresh could source produce to the grocery store or other vendors at the marketplace. She’s also excited for the commercial kitchen that will be opening there. 

Being an entrepreneur can be lonely but “it doesn’t have to be that way,” Contreras said. CentroVilla will provide entrepreneurs with the physical space, resources, and support needed to start and grow businesses. The businesses interested in opening at CentroVilla will go through a six-month program called “Barrio Progreso” to build their business plans and marketing strategies before CentroVilla determines which 20 businesses will open there. 

In the meantime, the Hispanic Business Center has already begun using CentroVilla’s future home to support local businesses by hosting showcases for small Hispanic-owned businesses at the warehouse space. 

Last Wednesday, entrepreneurs gathered there for a “Small Business Seeds for Growth” showcase and resource fair, where they listened to panels about overcoming pandemic-related challenges and accessing capital and connected with other entrepreneurs and business support programs. Attendees received $20 in “Seed Money” to spend at nine vendors, including art, soap, and accessory businesses that had set up tables at the event. 

Beyond the businesses that open at the marketplace, Contreras hopes CentroVilla will spark additional business growth in the community. “It’s a transformational project,” said Ward 14 Council Member Jasmin Santana, who lives in and represents the neighborhood. “It’s a catalyst to other businesses opening in the neighborhood.”  

In Minneapolis, Mercado Central has had a catalytic impact in the community since its opening in 1997, said Juan Linares, one of the founders of the market. The city’s Lake Street commercial corridor is now home to several public markets, such as Midtown Global Market, and about 200 Latino-owned businesses, Linares said.

Santana said that she became a huge champion of CentroVilla when she realized the role that economic development and wealth creation can play in improving families’ quality of life. The CentroVilla25 project could have a “ripple effect” to help address various challenges that Latino communities are facing, she said. 

If Santana’s mother, who was an entrepreneur, had gotten the opportunity to open a business at a place like CentroVilla, her family probably would have been in a more secure economic situation and wouldn’t have had to struggle as much, she said.

“I think the real return on investment is the businesses that you’re going to help build wealth and build equity in the Latino community. You don’t see that a lot,” Santana said. “We’re pretty left behind in terms of equity. You’re changing people’s economic status when you’re investing in CentroVilla25.”

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