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Optimism, resentment in Rockwood

Businesses on former Fred Meyer site prepare to close doors
by: File photo, Store owners Mila Villavicencio and Mauricio Alvarez are still trying to get some help with moving costs.

Opposite feelings are in the air in Rockwood.

As the clock ticks down for two minority-owned businesses to vacate a building near the old Fred Meyer by March 31, one owner is optimistic, the other bitter.

Mauricio Alvarez, who owns La Tapatia, a grocery store near the soon-to-be-demolished Fred Meyer building on Southeast Stark Street, is excited about moving into a larger space a few blocks down Stark. But Mila Villavicencio, owner of the neighboring Mila's Hair Salon, said the $9,000 she has been offered to help with the move is not enough to open her business elsewhere.

'I feel like my stomach is in my throat,' she said. 'We were doing so good.'

It's been a long road for the business owners since spring 2006. It was then that Fred Meyer officials paid the city of Gresham's redevelopment commission more than $2 million to buy out the grocer conglomerate's lease.

Gresham officials declined to renew the sub-lease between Fred Meyer and the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs. The association invested nearly $300,000 in the site and brought in several minority-owned businesses, including those of Villavicencio and Alvarez, who have also invested thousands of dollars to expand and improve their establishments.

But all of their work ran into the will of Gresham officials, who are planning redevelopment projects through the 20-year, $92 million urban renewal district that voters passed in 2003. The city's redevelopment commission has contracted to have the former Fred Meyer space and the adjacent building with the OAME-backed businesses deconstructed. A mixed-use development is envisioned for the 6.5-acre site.

Attorneys from OAME and the city have been hashing out a compensation settlement. That process was still ongoing as of Tuesday, March 6, said Rebecca Ocken, Gresham urban renewal manager.

Villavicencio said she was sad upon first learning she was losing her business. But that feeling has hardened into anger, especially since a construction fence around the vacant Fred Meyer building was recently erected in front of her salon.

The new fence 'makes us feel like chickens, like we're in a concentration camp,' she said.

OAME's relocation offer only made her angrier, Villavicencio said, because it wasn't enough to pay lease obligations on a new space. OAME officials could not be reached for comment.

'We didn't do anything bad,' she said. 'It's not fair.'

The optimist

Mauricio Alvarez is reading about the life of grocery magnate Fred Meyer as he prepares to relocate his popular Rockwood store. Alvarez has a similar vision as the late Meyer: to offer much more than groceries.

But the impending move to a 20,000-square-foot space next to the Oregon Flea Market at 18330 S.E. Stark St. comes with yet another shadow: Gresham officials are considering the flea market space as one of two potential sites for a new justice center.

Alvarez, however, is confident that his five-year lease, with an option to buy the space, will protect him should the city move in. On Monday, March 5, he proudly showed off the new space.

He said he had to sell properties he owns in his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, to come up with the estimated $600,000 needed for the move and new lease, and $200,000 on new freezers and meat cases.

The space will allow him to offer better customer service and possibly enable him to add employees. He also envisions a tortilla-making section, barbecue and deli, a mariachi band out front, landscaping and other amenities to go along with the normal fresh produce and meats.

Alvarez, who routinely puts in 14-hour days, said the news that he would have to leave his current spot caused several sleepless nights. But seeing workers, including some of his relatives, put the finishing touches on the new store brings a smile to his face.

'It's going to be nice here,' he said. 'I'm going to sleep better.'