Jacob Fischler | The Monitor Follow @fischlerRGV
EDCOUCH – The letters, painted a foot-and-a-half tall in primary colors and a playful font on a stucco wall directly across the street from Edcouch-Elsa High School and down the hill from the school district’s abandoned Fine Arts Center, have faded slightly.
Cobwebs have grown over door handles. Graffiti adorns the hallway between the restrooms, some of the markings proclaiming the supremacy of the Tri-City Bombers street gang. No flags are raised atop the six flagpoles near the entrance. The substantial parking lot sits empty.
The Mercado Delta didn’t always look this way. On weekends shortly after it opened in 2009, it bustled with the activity of artisans and farmers selling crafts and produce.
“When it got started, it was a great idea and artisans were showing up and young entrepreneurs were getting themselves started with little businesses,” said Edcouch Mayor Robert Schmalzried. “But for some reason or another, it started to deplete itself.”
No weekend markets have been held there since about May 2012, said Antonio Sandoval, the interim executive director and full-time treasurer of the Delta Region Revitalization Corp., or DRRC, a nonprofit that oversees Mercado Delta.
“We weren’t receiving enough revenues,” he said. “The overhead was really overwhelming.”
The organization’s most recent tax returns show the Mercado’s building and the land it sits on are worth about $2.4 million.
But other than the real estate, not enough money was coming in to pay the bills.
“The light bill alone was really something to deal with,” Sandoval said.
BRINGING ‘LIFE TO THE DELTA’
The market officially opened – to much fanfare – in early 2009, earning multiple write-ups in The Monitor as it promised to help pump life into the Delta region’s economy while also offering an upscale alternative to the traditional flea markets, or pulgas, spread throughout the Rio Grande Valley.
U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, was credited with helping to secure grants through the U.S. Department of Commerce that launched the Mercado. A 2010 grant proposal states the DRRC received more than $2.6 million in 2006 from the Commerce Department, with an additional $500,000 grant from Hidalgo County’s Urban County Program. Construction began the next year.
The DRRC’s “sole purpose” is economic development, it claimed in a 2006 tax return.
“This is really going to bring life to the Delta, which has been neglected by the federal government for far too long,” Hinojosa said prior to a 2008 groundbreaking ceremony.
People in peripheral roles say the congressman holds major power over the future of the unused 30,000-square-foot plaza and building.
“There’s a lot of interest in that building,” Schmalzried said. “It’s just a matter of getting the blessing from the congressman to see which way he wants to go.”
But that characterization of Hinojosa’s involvement is wildly overblown, a member of his staff said.
“If he wants to give his opinion, he’ll give it,” said Patricia Guillermo, the congressman’s communications director. But the DRRC board will “do what they want.”
Mike Trippel, DRRC’s president, also trumpeted the nonprofit’s independence.
“‘Guidance’ would be the first word that comes to mind,” he said when asked about Hinojosa’s role in the organization.
“He doesn’t tell us what to do,” he added. “He helps us out. He has connections to things that I couldn’t get my foot in the door.”
NO ONE HOME
The Mercado’s first and only tenant, former state Rep. Aaron Peña, said he remembers seeing attendance dwindle at the weekend farmer and artisan markets. Management asked Peña to leave the office a few months prior to his lease ending, he said, when it looked like a more profitable tenant might move in.
“They thought somebody was coming in, and then after I moved out they asked me to move back in,” he said.
Three different restaurants were seriously courted, Sandoval said. But ultimately none set up shop.
The rate to lease space at the property is about a dollar per square foot, Trippel said, which he admitted was “probably a little high for the Delta area.” But he did not think that rate was prohibitive to attracting a client, especially if the client was an upscale or white-collar professional.
From the beginning, management was selective about the types of merchants they allowed into the market. Vendors offering tattoos and massages were turned down.
The nonprofit also relied heavily on grant funding, which dried up during the Great Recession.
But Sandoval, the group’s treasurer since its inception, said he does not regret the decisions he and the board made.
“It’s always easy when you do something to look back and say, ‘We should’ve done this, we should’ve done that,’” he said. “I don’t know what could’ve been done differently.”
The space may have failed as a commercial venture, but an educational or a healthcare facility could flourish, Schmalzried said.
“Commercial-wise, it wouldn’t really work because it’s not on the main (Highway) 107,” he said. “It’s been tried and it hasn’t worked.”
An STC campus could be a viable solution for the space, said Democratic state Rep. Oscar Longoria, whose district includes the area and who previously sat on the STC Board of Trustees.
He has met with both Hinojosa and STC officials to discuss the idea, he said.
“It’s a great place for it to be at due to the fact that it’s right across the street from the high school,” he said.
STC President Shirley Reed said several communities have approached the college about expanding into their area, but that doesn’t mean the college will set up shop in those areas.
“There isn’t a community … that doesn’t want an STC campus,” she said.
Talks with officials in the Delta have not progressed far, she said. Reed questioned whether enrollment in the area would be high enough to sustain a full campus there, especially with the college providing free bus service to the Weslaco campus 10 minutes away.
Instead, STC is focusing on expanding dual enrollment with Edcouch-Elsa High School.
“From the college’s perspective, we’re really looking at how we can develop more partnerships with the school district and expand dual enrollment,” Reed said.
Hinojosa has expressed his support for STC moving into the space he originally envisioned as a farmers market, Longoria said, adding that support from the Valley’s longest-serving congressman is vital.
“Without him, we can’t get it done because it’s his building,” he said.
Talks were going well, he added, until the federal government’s partial shutdown at the beginning of this month sent Hinojosa to Washington for the foreseeable future. The two have not met about the Mercado since, Longoria said.
Another key would be convincing the DRRC board that changing the site’s use from commerce to education would still fit its original design to expand economic opportunity in the Delta.
The congressman is receptive to that idea, said Guillermo, the Hinojosa communications director, but he hasn’t lost sight of his original vision of the Mercado as a farmers market.
“He’s very much pro-having it linked to agriculture and having it linked to the community of Edcouch-Elsa,” she said.
Citing several “irons in the fire,” on which he could not elaborate because negotiations are ongoing, Sandoval said he is optimistic that despite the setbacks of the past year-and-a-half, the Mercado Delta could still serve its mission to bolster the local economy.
“We’re looking at it very optimistically,” he said. “And we have the full support of our local congressman, of course.”
By some reports, Hinojosa doesn’t just support the project – he controls it.
“At the end of the day, it’s whatever the congressman says,” the Edcouch mayor said. “I could put all the leg work into it – and I’d be willing to – but at the end of the day it’s for him to say yes or no.”