Humboldt Park laundromat is transformed into a people’s market

The incubator is one of eight that the city’s Department of Planning and Development provides funding to in order to aid in economic growth for small business owners in South and West Side communities.

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To mark the grand opening of the ¡WEPA! Mercado del Pueblo at 2559 West Division Street, (starting from the left) Manny Flores, president and CEO of SomerCor; Chip Hastings and Mary O’Connor of the Department of Planning and Development; Carlos Bosques and Nadya Henriquez of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center; and Maher Farhan of Municipal Foods cut ribbon on February 5, 2021.

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What was once a run-down laundromat at 2559 West Division Street is now an incubator space for local entrepreneurs. At least a dozen vendors gathered on Friday afternoon to kick off the grand opening of the new people’s market, ¡WEPA! Mercado del Pueblo, a project of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC).

In Humboldt Park, the Mercado del Pueblo houses several small business owners every weekend. Each of the rent-free market spots was prioritized for women and people of color.

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The Mercado del Pueblo is open 4 to 8 p.m. on Fridays, and 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Social distancing and face masks are required.

Ambi Colón/Sun-Times

In coordination with the Department of Planning and Development and several community partners such as SomerCor, Sunshine Enterprises and next door neighbor Municipal Foods, the PRCC transformed the space into a vibrant hub for small business owners to showcase their products in the style of a traditional Latin American street market.

Many of the vendors that have set up shop aren’t shy about expressing their gratitude for the chance to sell and receive support from the staff at the Mercado del Pueblo, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.

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After the birth of her first son, Sharon Osinaike started experiencing hair loss due to alopecia and a weakened immune system. Feeling called to do something, she decided to make her own natural teas, hair oils, and shampoo bars for herself and family members dealing with similar issues. Now she sells her products at the Mercado del Pueblo as well as online, where her products are available for wholesale purchasing.

“They have offered me so many resources beyond my expectations,” said Osinaike, founder of Dr. Herbal’s Organic & Vegan Hair Care. “They help you with anything your business needs.”

Cedric Salone’s cousin urged him to start selling his natural skincare products back in 2019, so the pharmacist created ButtersRx, a plant-based moisturizer brand. He said having the opportunity to sell his product in a rent-free space during a time where rent is mostly unaffordable for startup businesses is “awesome.”

“I’m just excited to be a part of it,” Salone said. “There’s a lot of different things coming up in the pipeline that is gonna help all of us expand.”

Carlos Bosques, director of business initiatives and small business development coordinator of the PRCC works on an as-needed basis with each of the local entrepreneurs to provide advice and resources.

“It is a project that was born as a result of the needs of entrepreneurs and micro-business owners especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bosques said. “We give them a rent-free space and one-on-one business advice to develop their businesses. With this idea we have converted the ¡WEPA! Mercado del Pueblo into an innovative project where startups can sell their products as they formalize and grow their businesses.”

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Sharon Osinaike, founder and owner of Dr. Herbal’s Organic & Vegan Hair Care.

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At Mercado del Pueblo, Ana Claudio-Camacho, owner of Anita’s Coquito, sells homemade coquito; Luis Collazo crafts jibarito makers; Sachayra Cintrón is the owner of Chucherías Tropical Creations bakery; and Ariana Romero sells organic honey with her partner out of the Chicago Honey Truck.

PRCC organizers said that the goal is to develop an economy within the neighborhood that is sustainable and self-perpetuating. 

The initiative is part of the city’s INVEST South/West program which provides funding to aid economic development in South and West Side neighborhoods. The Department of Business Affairs has identified eight locations that could become resource centers for small businesses.

The city plans to open up several more cross-cultural hubs in various South and West Side neighborhoods. The incubators are funded by the Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF), a $60 million grant program that will continue into 2023.

“SBIF is to help small businesses [make] improvements to their small retail space in order to remain sustainable and competitive in the business district,” said the planning department’s deputy commissioner Mary O’Connor.

O’Connor said the Humboldt Park location means entrepreneurs don’t have to go downtown to get their licensing and other business requirements. “They could get those resources in their own neighborhoods so they’re spending time working on their business and not navigating City Hall,” she said.

The SBIF funds come from the Tax Increment Fund (TIF), which allows for reinvestments of tax revenues from new business developments and property taxes within the area they were collected. The Department of Planning and Development ramped up the SBIF program in 2020, raising the grant amounts from $100,000 to $150,000 and creating a 3-year funding plan — the largest in its history — for over 60 eligible SBIF districts.

Miriam Aguilera, who sells handmade shirts, dresses, dolls and trinkets from the Mexican state of Morelos, said that the money she makes at the Mercado del Pueblo goes directly back to the domestic violence survivors’ shelter in which the products are made.

“When you have your own space [to sell], that makes you believe in yourself again. It strengthens you and it makes you think that you can achieve anything you want,” Aguilera said.

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