A construction crew is busy renovating a dilapidated strip mall on the Boise bench. It’s just a big empty space with torn up floors, but by August this will be the Boise International Market. Lori Porreca is building the market along with her partner Miguel Gaddi.
The market will be home to many small businesses, each in stalls. There will be 17 when it opens and more added later. As Gaddi stands in the main entrance of his construction project, he describes what it will be like.
There will be half a dozen food venders, from as many countries, against the left wall, an African clothing store to the right, an Asian grocery store and Mexican bakery along the center aisle, plus a community meeting and performance space in the back. Gaddi says it’s as much about the experience as about what you can buy.
“Maybe what happens, you’ll try something really good, you know, some food from Ethiopia, and you’ll say 'oh wow I like that vegetable that you used there,’” Gaddi says. “Well you know what, you walk 30 feet and you can get that vegetable directly from the guy from Congo.”
Gaddi’s excitement is clear whenever he talks, and he’s not the only person excited about his business venture. Boise State University economist Samia Islam says she’s heard there will be a Mexican ice cream place which she’s looking forward to. But it's not the ice cream Islam is most excited about.
Islam, who studies cities, says economists are very interested right now in urban market places; central locations were a lot of small businesses are together without walls and doors between them.
“These are fusion spaces. They’re not just about buying and selling anymore,” Islam says. “It’s also about being part of the community identity. You have creative and artistic expression, and you have performances and events that bring the community together.”
She says there is an urban market revival going on now in European cities and on the East Coast – cities that were originally built around this type of marketplace. Western cities that never had urban markets are now trying to create them. Note the proliferation of farmers' markets. Islam says studies are starting to show that urban marketplaces can boost a local economy. They’re especially beneficial to low-income neighborhoods and people.
“These are different types of entrepreneurs,” Islam says. “When we go to the farmers market we see vendors from all walks of life. And you wouldn’t probably see them at the mall because they just don’t have the capital to start at that level.”
That’s why a nonprofit that gives loans and training to micro-businesses is bankrolling many of the venders at the international market. Business developers at Micro-Enterprise Training and Assistance, or META, think the international market is a great place for refugees to start. According to the Idaho Office for Refugees, more than 6,000 refugees have come to Idaho since 2001.
Some of the vendors you'll find in the new market have been around for a while, like Victor Nava's Andy's shaved ice and ice cream.
Nava has owned ice cream stands since he came to Idaho 14 years ago. He’s the fourth generation of his family to sell traditional Mexican ice cream and shaved ice.
“Five-years-old I’m selling my shave ice in Mexico," Nava says. “I’ve got my big heavy carrito and I’m pushing. And after six-years-old I do my own ice cream.”
Today, his kids pitch in at Nava's canary yellow stand. Nava's kids are now the fifth generation of his family to make frozen treats using ingredients like chili powder, tropical fruit and condensed milk. The business is named for his son. They do a good trade in their spot at Curtis and Franklin in Boise. But Nava says it’s better to be inside.
“A stand is only seasonal and if it rain[s], it kill[s] my business,” he says.
He won't have far to go to join the international market. His stand is already in what will be the market’s parking lot.
Not all the businesses will be owned by refugees or immigrants, but all must fit into the international theme.
The market’s developers, Porreca and Gaddi, say they love Boise but they miss a sense of diversity they feel in other places.
When Gaddi and his children recently visited London, he told his daughters to be quiet and listen to the sounds on the subway.
“And so I let a minute go by and I asked them ‘did you count how many languages you heard?’ [There were] probably 10, 15," Gaddi recalls. "Maybe 10 years in Boise you wouldn’t hear the languages you heard in that one minute in the London underground.”
But he says it shouldn’t be that way. There is diversity in Boise, but sometimes it's hard to see. Nearly 8 percent of Boise residents were born in other countries, and more than 10 percent speak a language other than English at home. Gaddi believes the city just lacks a place where diverse people, and people who want to experience that diversity, can come together. He wants his market to be that place.
Find reporter Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam
Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio