Nine months ago, business owners in the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneur's Rockwood business incubator were alarmed to learn that the city of Gresham had not renewed OAME's lease.
Mila Villavicencio, owner of Mila's Hair Salon, said she – as well as the other entrepreneurs in the OAME incubator – believed they had at least five years left on the lease.
"I spent my entire savings to expand my business," Villavicencio said in June, a few weeks after receiving the city's notice to vacate. "If the city makes me move, I won't be able to start over again."
Today, with only four weeks left on his lease at the Rockwood business incubator, Mauricio Alvarez, who owns the prosperous La Tapatia grocery store, is getting ready to relocate to a building six blocks away.
As he prepares to leave the OAME incubator that he has put at least $200,000 into renovating over the past four years, Alvarez says he is disappointed by the city's decision, but convinced he'll eventually come out on top.
"I'm going to show the city, 'Hey, you can make me move, but I'm going to grow my business,' " Alvarez said this week. "I've invested a lot of money in this business. And I don't know how long it will take to get it back, but I'm going to be successful."
Now set to move into a space three times the size of the 7,000-square-foot store he rented from OAME, Alvarez remembers the beginnings of his entrepreneurial venture and says he won't sever his ties to the North Portland minority business association.
"OAME gave me a chance, they gave me the opportunity to have a store in this space. I hope I can help others who are just starting out in business," Alvarez says. "I want to mentor my people, to help other Spanish (speaking) people be business owners."
OAME's History in Rockwood
The shell of the old Fred Meyer store still stands next to OAME's Rockwood business incubator near the intersection of Burnside Avenue and Stark Street in East Multnomah County.
When the grocery giant closed shop in January of 2003, local residents – mainly low-income immigrants from Mexico and Eastern Europe – were dismayed. Many of those who lived nearby had chosen apartment complexes in Rockwood specifically because they could walk to Fred Meyer.
The grocery store's closure left a hole in the community.
"Rockwood was pretty tough at that time," Sam Brooks, head of OAME said. "The city's economic development department asked us to come there … and it was a positive move."
Brooks signed an agreement with Fred Meyer to lease a small building on the property's eastern side for four years with an option to renew in March of this year.
The OAME lease was tied to a master lease with Fred Meyer, but when the city of Gresham bought the 6.4-acre property in 2006 for $8.4 million, the master lease changed hands.
Brooks said in June that city of Gresham officials called him to tell him they were not renewing OAME's lease.
"I just hope they realize that there are businesses out there … and that, if these businesses have to move, there will be consequences for these people who have worked so hard, who have gone from having almost nothing to making three or four million dollars a year," Brooks said at that time.
Questioned by OAME leaders, as well as the businesses in the Rockwood incubator, city officials said they were "aggressively marketing that property and … creating redevelopment in that area."
Brooks said attorneys for OAME and the city of Gresham are in negotiations concerning the future of the city-owned building – which now houses a Rockwood community police department – but said OAME is "committed to providing a business incubator service somwhere in (East County)."
Alvarez has mentioned the possibility of suing the city of Gresham, but city officials said they haven't received any notice yet.
"I thought about moving out of Gresham … I thought about just closing and going somewhere else," Alvarez said this week. "But I decided to stay here and move into a bigger building. I'm selling my house to make this work. I just wish the city of Gresham would compensate me for the extra cost of having to relocate my business."