New Centrovilla25 Latino market would address food desert in Cleveland neighborhood
Jenice Contreras’s excited voice fills the empty warehouse on W. 25th Street, echoing off the bare walls. She doesn’t see cracked concrete floors and bricks shedding chipped white paint, but instead the potential for a thriving Latino market: one that will soon be filled with the sounds of live music, mojitos on the sunny outdoor patio and the scent of fresh tortillas and empanadas sizzling in frying oil.
“My vision in the future is being able to come here with my grandkids and sit down and order empanadas and play hopscotch or dominos or listen to Latino music and really see a vibrant, thriving community,” said Contreras, the executive director of the Northeast Ohio Hispanic Business Center.
Contreras is intimately familiar with the needs and struggles of the Clark-Fulton neighborhood on Cleveland’s near West Side, which is home to the highest density of Latino residents in Ohio. For years, it’s been considered a food desert, forcing residents to travel outside the neighborhood to buy groceries.
But plans for a new multi-stalled market, called CentroVilla25, will soon change that. It’s been a decade-long dream for Contreras and others in the neighborhood: one that’s finally becoming a reality after Cleveland City Council recently approved $1.5 million in spending to close the financing gap on the $10 million project. The money will come from the city's American Rescue Plan Act funds, which are intended to invest in communities hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Councilmember Jasmin Santana, whose ward 14 will be home to CentroVilla25, has been a huge advocate of the project since taking office in 2018.
“It gets me emotional but when you grow up in a neighborhood and you don’t see anything that represents you, that’s tough,” said Santana, the first Latina to serve on Cleveland City Council. “It’s frustrating because you feel like you’re not included or you don’t matter in this world and this city.”
Nearly 40% of the residents in Clark-Fulton live in poverty, and while there’s an increasing number of neglected vacant properties, its proximity to quickly developing areas like Ohio City and Tremont have costs on the rise. That’s forcing out many low-income residents.
The businesses that do fill some of the mostly empty and dilapidated storefronts include smoke shops, dollar stores, barbers and a place to sell your plasma for cash.
Most notably, there are no grocers.
Aside from a few corner stores, which typically don’t offer fresh produce options, residents must leave the neighborhood to get groceries: a challenge for many residents who do not own cars.
And Santana said forget trying to find specialty ingredients.
“We eat Spanish food every day,” Santana said, citing her mother’s weekly journey to get groceries from a specialized market in Lorain. “Sofrito is like this blend of peppers and garlic, and it’s a seasoning that we use. We could not cook without that. So for you to have to drive like two miles to get this, that is challenging.”
CentroVilla25 will change all that: bringing an assortment of vendors, a prepared food hall, commercial kitchen for food entrepreneurs and a specialty grocery store.
In addition to serving neighbors, Contreras wants the space to be accessible to the neighborhood’s aspiring business owners.
“That’s what we’re trying to do differently in Clark-Fulton: that yes we need development, yes there’s been a lack of investment in our neighborhood but what if we do that keeping in mind the people who live here today?” Contreras said. "We want to engage residents and business owners in the growth and they could also participate in the economic mobility of the development of the neighborhood."
Not only will vendors pay rent at a below-market rate, they’ll also receive technical support. All potential vendors will go through the free Barrio Progreso program, a five-month business readiness course that includes instruction on marketing, financing, procurement of goods and more.
Among those vendors will be Luis Roman, a local restaurateur who will operate the specialty grocery store inside.
“If you’re looking for a particular produce only grown in the Caribbean, you’re going to find it here," he said. "Of course, it's about the food desert, but I want to make sure kids know what a plantain is, or a green banana, because a lot of times growing up here, they don't. I want to educate as I go."
Roman sees CentroVilla25 as an opportunity to not only equip the neighborhood with what it needs to thrive, but bring new visitors to the area.
“I envision this place as a tourist destination for anyone that’s coming out and something Cleveland can show off a little bit like, ‘Hey, this is our Hispanic Village.’ Ta-da!” he said.
More than anything, CentroVilla25 will be authentically Clark-Fulton and the people who live there: those like lifelong resident Peggi Cruz, who will sell Puerto Rican cuisine at the market.
“[Clark-Fulton is] more than home. It’s community. It’s my world actually. Everything I do, everything I put in -- we bring Puerto Rico to the block,” Cruz said. “This is our world. It’s our island actually. Our little island.”
She owns a nearby restaurant, Cha’firo, which will continue to be her base of operations for the time being. She’s excited to work alongside other Latino entrepreneurs at CentroVilla25.
“We need a place to call our own,” Cruz said. “We need a place that’s beautiful and gorgeous, that we can invite people from out of Cleveland and out of our neighborhood that can go, ‘Wow, this is beautiful.’ We deserve it, it’s our time and we’re going for it.”
Work on the market is expected to begin this summer with plans to open next year.