Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
One formerly run-down strip mall near the International District in Southeast Albuquerque is now bustling with activity from a new flower shop and a neighborhood gym that opened there in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic last September.
The commercial center, near San Mateo and Copper just north of Central Avenue, housed just a few microbusinesses when Mustard Seed Flowers and Stretch Strength & Fitness became next-door neighbors there. The flower shop opened in a 3,000-square-foot space that a neighborhood grocery store had occupied years ago. And the gym moved into a long-abandoned, two-story bank building from the 1960s that still sports a vault inside and some colorful designs on its outer walls.
Until the arrival of those businesses, customer flow was generally sporadic at the few existing strip mall operations, which include a smoke shop, two other small retail outlets, a massage parlor and a barber. But now, business is booming with a fairly continuous flow of flower-shop patrons and gym members who work out night and day at the 24-hour fitness center.
“These spaces were unused for so long,” said flower shop owner Kimberly Obregon, a first-time entrepreneur who lives in the area. “When I moved in and remodeled this old neighborhood grocery store, I called it my ‘fight-club project,’ because that’s what it looked like. … There used to be a lot of crime around the strip mall, but now there’s a lot of life here.”
Both Obregon and Cariño Padilla, who owns the gym with his fiancée and another investor, received significant support from the International District Economic Development Center, which launched in 2019 to provide resources and assistance to aspiring entrepreneurs and existing businesses in the area.
“We helped them both to get set up,” said development center founder and Executive Director Alex Horton. “That strip center had almost no activity before. But now, with these two new businesses, there’s lots of hustle and bustle there.”
That those startups could launch and thrive in the midst of the pandemic shows the vibrant potential for entrepreneurial development in the International District, Horton said.
“There are so many enthusiastic people here looking to become entrepreneurs,” Horton told the Journal. “They just need startup guidance and support to get going.”
Through the new Color Theory coalition, Horton’s development center and other nonprofits that work to build entrepreneurship and economic opportunity in the city’s underserved communities expect to provide a lot more support, guidance and access to capital for Albuquerque’s marginalized, minority populations.
The coalition, which consists of nearly a dozen groups, unites Albuquerque’s disparate nonprofits in a joint effort to share information about individual and community needs. They collaboratively work together to connect existing and aspiring entrepreneurs with the numerous resources they collectively offer.
That could significantly extend Horton’s outreach in the International District, an impoverished area where much of the city’s Spanish-speaking immigrant population lives. The district roughly extends along Central Avenue eastward from San Mateo to Wyoming and from Lomas south to Gibson.
Two new “community navigators” supported by a $1 million W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant will help draw more people into the network, Horton said.
“The goal is to onboard more clients and businesses to either help them get going or to grow,” Horton said.
From food to film
Apart from the International District, the coalition can extend services to underserved communities and individuals throughout the city through participating organizations like the South Valley Economic Development Center, which launched in 2005 with support from Bernalillo County and the Rio Grande Economic Development Corp.
The center’s commercial kitchen, dubbed “The Mixing Bowl,” has helped spur dozens of minority-owned food businesses over the past 15 years. Many other enterprises have launched as well with training and mentoring from the center, such as mortgage, video, staffing, massage and printing companies.
Many food enterprises that graduated from The Mixing Bowl now operate in emerging business hubs. That includes food trucks stationed next to the Albuquerque BioPark, and restaurants located at the remodeled El Vado Motel next to the Botanic Garden — a Route 66 landmark that today accommodates a mix of shops.
Costa Rican native Kattia Rojas, for example, set up her Latino-food restaurant, Buen Provecho Albuquerque, at El Vado with her husband in 2018 after starting out at The Mixing Bowl. Buen Provecho — a Spanish version of the French expression bon appetit — now employs 15 part-time workers, Rojas told the Journal.
“The South Valley development center helped open the doors for us,” Rojas said. “We’re doing like four times more sales now than when we started. We’re really busy.”
Youth as well will benefit from the resources and connections offered by Color Theory, thanks to participation by Siembra Leadership High School, a charter that launched in 2016 in Downtown Albuquerque to offer youngsters alternative education opportunities through hands-on training in entrepreneurship and economic development. Students learn by doing, including capstone senior efforts to build their own business or community project, Siembra Executive Director Jaqi Baldwin said.
“These are young people who maybe didn’t do so well in other school settings,” Baldwin told the Journal. “They’re primarily students of color, like 85% to 95% of them every year.”
The main goal is to expose students to skills and knowledge that can help them generate income after leaving school, Baldwin said. That’s critical, given Albuquerque’s excessive high school dropout rate, which leaves many young adults with limited job opportunities.
“Color Theory aligns with the school’s goal of learning about larger social justice issues with a focus on entrepreneurship and economic development for under-invested communities,” Baldwin said. “It can connect our young people with a very powerful network of nonprofit organizations.”
About 30% of Siembra graduates continue pursuing businesses they started in school after graduation.
Angel Sanchez, for example, has built a successful resale business for rare, or “collectible,” sneakers coveted by some consumers. Sanchez, 19, has sold nearly 1,000 pairs of sneakers through social media marketing since graduating from Siembra in 2020, and he plans to open a small brick-and-mortar location this fall.
“It’s been my dream to open a sneaker store,” Sanchez said. “Being able to accomplish that at my age is a blessing.”
Eye on equity
It’s critical that the startup ecosystem aggressively extend into underserved communities to build the local economy, said Agnes Noonan, executive director of the Women’s Economic Self Sufficiency Team, or WESST, which helped create the Color Theory coalition. Small businesses are the backbone of the state and national economies, and underinvested populations account for some 60% of those businesses.
“If we want a more equitable distribution of wealth and economic opportunity, we must pay attention to that 60% or more of the population who are primarily people of color, women and other marginalized groups,” Noonan told the Journal. “A lot of them are located in Albuquerque’s older neighborhoods. We have to invest in them, because they’re a critical part of the Albuquerque economy, the state economy, and beyond.”
In the International District, Horton has helped aspiring entrepreneurs start 16 businesses since launching the development center in 2019. That includes food trucks, online retail companies, and the flower shop and gym now operating in the strip mall at San Mateo and Copper.
Some provide secondary incomes for families to better support their households. Others, like the strip-mall startups, offer steady income for the entrepreneurs themselves, and for two employees who now work at those businesses.
And they contribute to urban revitalization, Horton said.
“If we can place just two brick-and-mortar businesses per year like those at the strip mall, that’s great,” Horton said. “It provides new income for local residents while also fixing up and bringing back to life some abandoned commercial centers.”
They also provide valuable neighborhood-level services. The gym offers low-cost membership for local people who often can’t afford the fees at other fitness centers, plus training programs for student athletes in area schools, Stretch Strength & Fitness co-owner Cariño Padilla said.
“We’re geared up to serve low-income people in the community,” Padilla said.
And the flower shop is providing income for local artisans who sell craft products such as jewelry, candles, soap and incense at the store. In addition, owner Kimberly Obregon is now remodeling the back of her shop into a commercial kitchen for food truck owners to prepare meals.
“It will be an affordable commissary kitchen for local food trucks to get licensed,” Obregon said. “We want to help move barriers and strengthen our economy.”