Viva, Mexicantown!

Hola people of the world, you are all welcome in Michigan. What better place for that message to surface than at the gateway to the state, at the foot of the Ambassador Bridge, in festive Mexicantown? This month, the star of that southwest Detroit neighborhood rises even higher with the opening of Mexicantown’s Michigan International Welcome Center and Mexican Mercado. Fittingly, the celebration takes place the same weekend as Cinco de Mayo, the annual commemoration of the victory of Mexico against French would-be colonialists.

The fun-filled day is more than about great food, a flavorful margarita, and a parade, says Mexicantown Community Development Corp. (MCDC) President Maria Elena Rodriguez. “Cinco de Mayo symbolizes the overcoming of adversity,” she says.

MCDC and its Mercado Advisory Committee have long spearheaded the campaign to formally greet visitors to Mexicantown and Michigan coming in from Canada and elsewhere. The two-story International Welcome Center is the only state-leased facility of its kind in Michigan, according to Gerardo Macias-Garcia, a former Mexican Consulate cultural representative turned MCDC Marketing Manager.

The State of Michigan is one of two anchor tenants in the 30,000 square foot building, which offers a variety of retail, restaurant, and office space. Rodriguez says it realizes a decades-old dream of many Detroiters, including former City Council member Clyde Cleveland and U.S. Senater Carl Levin. Indeed, it was with Levin's help that MCDC was awarded an impressive $500,000 in state-appropriated HUD funds to invest in the project, which intends to revitalize the local commercial district. The Welcome Center and Mercado project — located on Bagley Avenue, just north of the Porter Street exit on the east side of I-75 — has raised $17 million in a diversity of funding which includes foundation and government loans and grants, as well as private contributions.

Combining economics, business and community development ideals, the new Welcome Center and Mercado (market) aim to house over 80 businesses and provide almost 200 jobs. DTE Energy, the second anchor tenant, will provide a local customer service branch and job opportunities.

The 13,000 square foot Mercado serves as a business incubator for area entrepreneurs, using “culture as a tool for economic development," Rodriguez says.

Some of the tenants are graduates of MCDC’s highly successful 12-week entrepreneurial training program, which has spawned a number of successes, including the hip downtown Cuban restaurant Vicente's. Citing a “…need to be brand-specific,” Rodriguez says that for the time being the Mercado will offer only authentic Mexican imports and crafts. “If you can’t go to Mexico,” Rodriguez says, the new Mercado will bring Mexico to you. It’s expected that annual tourism in Mexicantown will double to over 2 million visitors with the opening of the Welcome Center and Mercado.

Mercado Retail Development

As of early April, almost half of the retail spaces were leased in anticipation of this year’s Cinco de Mayo festivities, which will present a sneak preview of the grand opening, scheduled for later this year.

Part business fair and part celebration of Mexican culture, activities and events will include entertainment as well as retail kiosks and already signed-on retail shops offering specialty Mexican products. Home furnishings chain store IKEA will be present to share its expertise in decorating small spaces. And there will be opportunities to discuss or sign up for MCDC’s entrepreneurial training program.

The southwest Detroit restaurant Taqueria Mi Pueblo establishes a second eatery with its presence in the Mercado, with retail shops to include Mexican jewelry and specialty gifts. Mercado Manager Myrna Segura spoke of the diversity in Mercado tenants. “Monica Cervantes is a 24-year old native of Jalisco, Mexico, who moved to Detroit six years ago.” As Monica puts it, she and her family wished to pursue “the American Dream.” She decided to open a shop in the Mercado, Maya’s Jewelry, as an opportunity “to share our culture by selling unique and high quality” jewelry handcrafted from the silver of the famed Guanajuato, Mexico, mines.

Other stores include Mexi-Candle Gift Shop, offering hand-poured scented candles, Spanish books and religious items, and the Felicidades Gift Shop, owned by Deborah Navarro de Llanes, whose family has deep roots in the southwest Detroit community. Her late grandfather Juan Solano is said to have served on one of the first committees that set the vision for the International Welcome Center and Mexicantown Mercado. It’s hoped that additional retail lessees will include coffee, gourmet foods, and home accessories shops, culminating in a well-rounded Mexican sabor.

Arts and Culture

Plans for an outdoor plaza include a family-friendly mini-park, called Placita de las Familias. The fundraising campaign of the same name offers personalized commemorative brick pavers, and is expected to supplement efforts to raise over $3 million in private contributions. Additionally, the proposed plaza will feature Mexican cultural events, featuring folkloric dance groups and showcasing Latino arts and artists. It’s expected that the new constructions will generate $16 million in annual retail revenue and $19 million in tourism expenditures by visitors to the new Welcome Center.

In anticipation of its grand opening later this year, the Welcome Center will showcase the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives traveling exhibit Our Journeys, Our Stories: Portraits of Latin Achievement. The exhibit features portraits by contemporary Latino photographers, and bilingual first-person narratives and interviews of 25 Latino individuals that have made a significant impact in U.S. culture, including actress Rita Hayworth (real name Margarita Carmen Cansino) and Cuban poet Jose Marti, among the group of Nobel laureates, athletes, community activists and others. The Ford Motor Company Fund sponsors the Detroit exhibit, which runs September through November.

Reconnecting Mexicantown

Additionally, though the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) facilitated the fracturing of Mexicantown over 30 years ago with the construction of the I-75 freeway through southwest Detroit, the agency just confirmed plans with MCDC on the development of a pedestrian bridge that will reunite the eastern-most blocks of Bagley Avenue with the bustling restaurant district on the west side of the interstate. The walkway has an expected completion date of late-2008 or early-2009.

For information about leasing Mercado or International Welcome Center retail space, or about this weekend’s Cinco de Mayo festivities at the Mercado, call Mexicantown Community Development (313) 967-9898.

Veronica Paiz is a Detroit-area freelance writer.


The New International Welcome Center

Senator Carl Levin at the Dedication of the New Welcome Center

The New International Welcome Center

The New Mercado Retail Center

A Mariachi Band at the Dedication of the New Welcome Center

The Mexicantown Fish by Vito Valdez at I 75 and Vernor

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger
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