The Mercado on Fifth in downtown Moline is hot, not just because of the blistering heat this month.
The six-year-old nonprofit — which hosts a popular Friday market (with food, vendors and live music) from 5 to 10 p.m. at 12th Street and 5th Avenue — has seen its attendance explode in the past couple years. It’s also focused on growing its outreach to help support local small businesses.
In 2019, the weekly market (which runs late May to late September) averaged 1,000 visitors each Friday. Last year’s attendance averaged 2,000 per week, and that is projected to double again this year (based on its first month), between 4,000 and 5,000 a week, Mercado executive director Anamaria Rocha said recently.
“To say that I’m overwhelmed, is an understatement,” she said in a June 17 presentation at Western Illinois University-Quad Cities. “I did not anticipate this. I had a plan for us to get there, but I didn’t think it would be this fast. I’m very grateful for the support and partnerships and everyone that’s helped to get us here. It really has been a community effort.”
Mercado on Fifth’s original vision was to provide a gathering space that would spur economic development among the QC Hispanic community, and increase Hispanic pride. Its family-friendly events feature food trucks, mobile boutiques and retail vendors, children’s activities, and live music and entertainment.
“It really has done that,” Rocha said. “Last year, when I took this role, we were still deep in the pandemic and a lot of what Mercado had built, a lot of those partnerships, were starting to fall apart.”
“There was some fear from some of the vendors coming back, so there were a lot of challenges we faced,” Rocha said. “There was a lot I had to do to bring them back in, and help build up a lot of those partnerships again.”
Since 2016, Mercado has served as a platform to establish 40 new businesses in the area, she said. Since 2018, Mercado has been partners with the WIU Small Business Development Center.
Last Friday, Kristi Mindrup, WIU vice president for the QC campus presented Rocha with the university’s annual award for a person or organization that represents its four core values – academic excellence, educational opportunity, personal growth and social responsibility. The award has been given the past 10 years.
“We’re so fortunate to have Mercado on Fifth as our neighbor to the west,” Mindrup said. “We welcome the opportunity to have you here on campus.”
She credited the “amazing work” the group is doing for the community. In 2020, WIU chose Mercado for the award, but couldn’t present in person until last week.
Second year in the job
Rocha is in her second year in the position; before that she worked for the cities of Rock Island and Moline in the planning and development department.
In 2020, Mercado received a $500,000 grant from the state of Illinois to help with its building renovation, which is not quite done but is very close.
Mercado and West Gateway, both managed by members of the Ontiveros family, are renovating the 6,300-square-foot building into a business incubator and event space at a cost of over $500,000, including a new outdoor patio.
Initially, the plan was to have a business incubator and year-round market inside, but there were unforeseen issues with the building renovation, Rocha said.
“We realized that we weren’t able to retrofit the building to accommodate all the food vendors,” she said. “We didn’t have all the oven hoods, the commercial spaces – everything that would be required. So we kind of had to revert back from that.”
They’re figuring out how to best use the building, including having it available for other organizations to rent the space for free, Rocha said. “We know every nonprofit struggles with money. That would be a good way to partner with nonprofits,” she said, noting Red Cross is interested in the space.
The building also would be available for private events, providing catering from Mercado vendors. Mercado helps promote its vendors for other business, Rocha said.
“You talk about the diversity of the event, and I just think that is so impactful,” Mindrup said. “I applaud Mercado for creating that space, so people can get together, have that community and just be together. It’s that thing I can’t define – you all know what it is. It’s back again and it’s wonderful.”
“I also try to inspire that cultural appreciation,” Rocha said. “Really, love your culture.”
In 2021, Mercado also received a Governor’s Hometown Award for all the volunteerism that has gone into the organization.
Lack of public awareness
Barriers to progress include lack of public awareness about help that’s available, Rocha said. “It’s not that the resources aren’t available in the community; it’s just that they’re not aware of who they are, that they exist,” she said. “They are not confident enough to go into that agency. They may not even know what the questions are.”
“Helping work together, and leveraging our resources and services, we can definitely make it easier,” Rocha said, noting the majority of her weekly vendors are small businesses.
Mercado fosters social interaction by “drawing a diverse crowd, nurtures and defines a sense of community and cultural pride, creates a connection between the Floreciente Neighborhood and Moline’s downtown, promotes a sense of comfort and belonging by advancing social inclusion, and builds and supports an equitable local economy by supporting small-scale entrepreneurship,” according to its website.
As a nonprofit, Mercado is dependent on private donations, though it receives some fees from food and beverage sales, sponsorships and grants.
Mercado wants to increase its small business mentorships, she said.
Rocha wants to work more closely with the Illinois Small Business Development Center at WIU-QC to get more clients to receive help.
“We’ve also held workshops that were funded by US Bank,” she said. “We’ve assisted with grant applications, and worked as a community navigator.”
Rocha also has worked with agencies across the state, to address gaps that affect not only the Latino community, but statewide as a whole.
“How can we work together, so we’re not duplicating services?” she said.
People often get intimidated by the amount of paperwork, which is similar to buying a house, Rocha said. Simplifying the process has been a goal of hers. Mercado is designated as a Small Business Community Navigator in the State of Illinois.
Support for small businesses
As a Community Navigator, Mercado provides support for small businesses – targeting underserved businesses including minority, rural, veteran and women-owned businesses. Trained Mercado staff work to reduce the barriers these businesses often face when trying to access relief program dollars.
The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity has invested $9 million in support of the Community Navigators. The consortium Mercado is a part of, received $1.5 million.
Rocha said a lot of her job is “hand-holding” with local small businesses and entrepreneurs. “A lot of things that are really important but are sometimes overlooked; we don’t realize people have a difficult time with,” she said.
“We’re not the SBDC by any means, but we do other things that complement their services,” Rocha said.
One thing Mercado is still missing is long-term investment, and is seeking outside funding opportunities and grants, she noted. Mercado is working on strengthening its relationship with the city of Moline.
The Hispanic community is one of the largest nationally and is also one of the biggest among small-business ownership, Rocha said.
Mercado also has non-Hispanic vendors – including Asian, Indian, and African-American soul food.
“Helping give them a space, that’s a way we can help support them,” Rocha said, noting Mercado’s rental fees are very low. “We can’t raise it, because that would go against our mission, in supporting those communities. It’s really been on us to look outside of that for funding.”
New “Day of the Dead” parade coming
Another new program Mercado is doing this year is launching the first-annual Día de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) Parade on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022 in downtown Moline.
Dia de los Muertos is a traditional Mexican holiday, customarily observed on November 1 and 2. Día de los Muertos is a time to honor loved ones who have passed by visiting and elaborately decorating gravesites; creating altars with flowers, commemorations, and offerings; and expressing oneself as a Catrina (skeleton figure).
Through Mercado on Fifth’s inaugural Día de los Muertos Parade, they encourage organizations and families to honor and celebrate the lives of their loved ones and to show appreciation for the traditions that surround the holiday.
For more information on Mercado, click HERE.
Services at Small Business Development Center
Maria Ramos, business advisor for the SBDC at Western, also presented an update June 17, noting she specializes in minority engagement. They are funded through the U.S. Small Business Administration and Illinois DCEO.
“Small businesses are considered the backbone of the economy,” Ramos said. The SBDC offers free, one-on-one confidential counseling services, and access to available resources for business start-ups or expansion.
“We assist businesses with the development of business plans,” she said, noting that includes marketing plans and financing programs. The SBDC refers people to local banks and government assistance.
They offer help with financial analysis and planning, and access to business training.
“For us, this is not just about helping a person starting a business,” Ramos said. “It’s much more than that – we help turn dreams into successful reality.”
She started her job in March, joining assistant director Ann Friederichs in the QC office, 3300 River Drive. Ramos is bilingual (Spanish) and is in charge of minority outreach and community engagement. She helps QC entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses.