Mercado and festival plaza for Clearwater's East Gateway moves forward

Published September 7 2017

CLEARWATER — It's not as if the makings of a Little Mexico district aren't already there.

Clustered in a few square miles around where Cleveland Street doglegs into Gulf to Bay Boulevard, there are restaurants serving homemade carnitas and flautas, groceries with imported candy, a strip mall with an outdoor bulletin board advertising apartments for rent in Spanish.

But the centerpiece of the district is currently an old, vacant car rental office in a triangular island in the middle of the intersection. Beyond a few "downtown gateway" banners on light posts, there is nothing announcing this cultural hub or its family-run businesses.

"We have a big population of people from Hidalgo, from Mexico," said Eleuterio Rodriguez, Florida Federation of Hidalguenses president and owner of Los Amigos Taqueria Y Tienda on Missouri Avenue. "There are many businesses in that area already. These are Hispanic businesses ... citizens have to take a chance and try."

Now the city is moving forward with a plan to transform the barren triangular lot into a mercado, or market, and festival plaza to anchor the well-established Hispanic community.

The mercado plan approved Tuesday pairs with the city's ongoing $8 million landscaping and road narrowing overhaul of the 1-mile stretch of Cleveland Street east of Missouri Avenue, bending into Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard to the intersection by Crest Lake Park.

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The city paid Project for Public Spaces consultants $50,000 to survey residents, host community meetings, and design the concept for the mercado plaza portion.

Consultants proposed replacing the vacant building on the triangle, which the city owns, with a shipping container to house a trendy business like a juice bar or taco stand. A plaza around the triangle would be built to hold a beer garden with seating and lighting, a game area, a small stage for music, and a space for food trucks.

The block of Cleveland Street just northeast of the triangle is proposed to be turned into a festival street for vendors on weekends — and the whole area would eventually be managed by a private operator hired by the city.

"When this space is not being used as a traditional mercado with the tenants and the vendors, it will be a main gathering place for residents and community members all over Clearwater but especially the gateway neighborhood," said Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor.

Clearwater's Hispanic community has grown steadily over the past 40 years, when immigrants primarily from the Mexican state of Hidalgo first began relocating to the city. Rodriguez said much of the growth has been by word of mouth. As families established themselves with jobs and education, other community members from Hidalgo followed.

"They got work and started telling their friends," said Rodriguez, who came from Hidalgo in the late 1990s. "The most important thing for us is we are hard workers. We are very close to our families and the community."

The Florida Federation of Hidalguenses estimates there are nearly 25,000 people from Hidalgo living between New Port Richey and Sarasota.

In Clearwater, 45 percent of the residents within a 15-minute walk radius of the project site are of Hispanic origin compared to 17 percent citywide, according to geographic data cited by the city consultants.

Of 55 potential food, crafts, clothing and other vendors surveyed by the consultants, 35 were interested in a having a booth in the proposed mercado.

Taylor said he expects the broader Cleveland Street streetscaping project to break ground by early 2018. The city is now working with the project's architectural consultant, Frank Bellomo, to determine a timeline and cost estimate for the mercado portion. The CRA has dedicated $600,000 for the mercado plaza, but Taylor said final capital costs could change.

Julie Torres has owned Juli's Mexican Restaurant at 1237 Cleveland St. for four years but said it has been difficult to establish a steady outside client base to make a profit, with most of her customers being regulars or those from the Hispanic neighborhood.

She immigrated from Puebla, Mexico, as a single mother in 1993, first working in San Diego before coming to Clearwater four years later.

She said the East Gateway neighborhood has immense potential that isn't being tapped or promoted. She said she's been dedicated, working long hours and going without paying herself to get her restaurant going — but it's still challenging for business owners.

Could vendors, a festival corridor and a mercado plaza walking distance from her restaurant help?

"I hope so," she said. "I came here because of a dream with my daughter...I've been patient."

Contact Tracey McManus at or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.