Guests walk through the historic Market Square building.
Guests walk through the historic Market Square building which is filled with small vendors that are unable to operate during current local restrictions. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Gabriella Albright runs La Boutique International at Historic Market Square. The business has been in the family for 42 years; her parents Alvaro and Carmen Munevar started it in 1977. Though the store has changed its offerings somewhat since it opened, the place – and the El Mercado building – looks largely the same, she said.

“Back in the ’70s when the City reopened Market Square, [El Mercado] was still open-air,” she reminisced. “We had to cover everything with plastic bags because of the pigeons.”

Today, El Mercado has skylights on the roof and air conditioning for hot summer days. Albright is one of more than 100 local merchants that conduct business at City-owned Market Square properties and whose leases expire at the end of June. The City has offered the businesses new contracts, but the terms give local Market Square business owners pause.

The City offered the Market Square tenants a four-plus-one contract, which means after four years, there’s an option to continue operating for another year. Market Square tenants requested a 10-year contract, which City officials refused. The business owners are currently at the end of an eight-year contract.

Yvette Ramirez is president of the Farmers Market Plaza Association, made up of the businesses who call the City-owned Farmers Market Plaza, across from El Mercado, their home. Ramirez said the Farmers Market Plaza Association and the El Mercado Merchants Association both met with City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and City staff last Thursday to discuss the future of the local businesses at Market Square. They left feeling their fears had not been resolved.

“That’s my biggest concern – [Treviño] wasn’t willing to budge,” said Ramirez, who owns and operates Tejano Lou’s a gift shop in the Farmers Market Building. “He couldn’t give us any assurances other than the four-one contract.”

One of the associations’ main worries stems from construction planned for the streets adjacent to Market Square over the next three years. Commerce, Santa Rosa, and San Saba streets have upcoming improvements funded by the 2017 bond program. Ramirez said she worries about the impact that closing off streets would have on the local businesses of Market Square.

“We’re going into four years of construction, and across the street there will be major construction with UTSA,” Ramirez said. “All around us there will be construction. And then after four years, they can kick us out.”

Albright, a board member of the El Mercado Merchants Association, said longer-term contracts give businesses more stability and security and make it easier for business owners to acquire loans as needed.

“If we wanted to make shop improvements and go to a lender, a lender wants to see we have a long-term lease to give us money before they enter into a loan with a small business,” she said. “Having a four-plus-one, depending on the magnitude of improvements, it doesn’t fare well with the small-business owner.”

Other City tenants have been able to receive longer leases, she argued. For example, the recently signed airport concessions contract gives Paradies Lagardère at least seven years.

“What seems really unfair is they can clearly make longer-term leases with people,” she said. “They are choosing not to in this instance.”

Treviño said contracts are specific to each site. He noted that the four-plus-one contracts give Market Square tenants more time than the one-year contracts City staff originally wanted to offer. The contract length also ensures that business owners can help shape Market Square’s future, he added.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1)
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“We know that over the next five years, there are opportunities to change Market Square,” Treviño said. “How that occurs is important.”

Veronica Garcia serves as assistant director of the Center City Development and Operations Department, which manages the Market Square properties. She said that the new contract allows the City and stakeholders the time to prepare for the future of Market Square and participate in the “visioning process.”

“We recognize that Market Square is a special place with rich history and traditions,” Garcia said. “We know the local businesses and the retail shops there help contribute to the cultural authenticity of what is Market Square.”

Market Square businesses consistently increase the resources available in the Market Square enterprise fund, Treviño acknowledged. In 2017, the fund ended with a $1.35 million balance. The 2019 ending balance is projected to be $1.6 million. But Market Square hasn’t seen change in a long time, and it’s time to plan for its future, Treviño said.

“We want to create a sustainable plan that creates growth and opportunity. … What we hear constantly is how we want to create public spaces that are inclusive of both locals and visitors,” he said.

Treviño said he hopes to start the visioning process in July. He said the City will convene all stakeholders – including the University of Texas at San Antonio, as it prepares to expand its downtown campus – to discuss what change they want to see, as well as gather public comment.

Garcia said she hopes the visioning process will yield a report for Market Square’s future in three to six months. She said without going through the process, tenants, neighboring entities such as the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, and other stakeholders can’t know what changes need to happen at Market Square.

“We may determine that we just scratched the surface and we need a phase two to narrow in on certain areas,” Garcia said. “Or [we may say] here are some short-term things we can implement right away. If the changes are larger, capital projects, then it’s something we can look at for recommendations in a future bond package.”

The City has pledged to preserve the popular tourist spot as a cultural public space, Treviño said.

“We understand Market Square plays a very unique role in the fabric of our history in San Antonio and we want to be sensitive to that,” Treviño said.

The El Mercado Snack Bar
The El Mercado Snack Bar Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Ramirez said she was encouraged by the City’s dedication to preserving the cultural aspects of Market Square but disappointed that officials did not offer a longer lease. The business owners feel they have no other option but to agree to the City’s terms, she said.

“We go on a month-to-month [lease] if we don’t sign it,” Ramirez said. “It’s not what mom-and-pop businesses want to do, because they’re too afraid to get kicked out. They’ll sign, but they’ll sign under duress.”

City officials plan to bring the contracts before City Council by the end of June for approval.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.