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For the past two years, a maze of food trucks and dining tents has attracted thousands to the corner of East Colfax Avenue and Chambers Road. The assembly began during the early days of the pandemic and acquainted diners with a diversity of culinary experiences from various regions of Mexico to El Salvador, Honduras, Columbia, and Venezuela. Vendors serve (on their own schedules) throughout the week, with the weekends offering the most options and largest crowds.
But this gathering of 37 food trucks and 30 vendor stalls is just a taste of what’s promised for the area. From his place in the lineup, Jesus “Chuy” Leyva, part owner of Tacos y Pollos Za Za Za, looks across the parking lot to a 90,000-square-foot building, where his business stakes its future. Leyva and his family plan to set up their Mexican-style grilled chicken shop in the La Plaza Colorado marketplace, an establishment with a focus on Hispanic entrepreneur development.
“It will look like this,” says Leyva, motioning to the pop-up mercado sponsored by La Plaza, “but inside and more fun for sure; better for the customers. I’m ready for it.”
Aurora’s La Plaza will be the second iteration of a series in developer Doug McMurrain’s portfolio. Atlanta La Plaza in Georgia, which opened in 2000, has seen success in the combination market, mall, and food hall business model; and its entertainment venue has hosted big name artists including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pink, Moby, Jay-Z and 50 Cent, according to McMurrain.
He and local partner Richard Naha envision 15200 East Colfax Avenue to be a community space, a center of commerce and culture in which individuals and families can immerse themselves as they buy groceries, savor a meal, and enjoy a salon or wellness service appointment. Special attractions will include a family entertainment center with a 4D virtual reality experience, kid play zones, a full bar, and a two-story birthday party area. A vast deck in the back (tarped in the winter) will allow diners to eat al fresco throughout the year, and a dedicated drive-through and delivery space will enable businesses to reach a broader customer base.
Much of the building is set to open in December, and the supermercado and grocery store are planned for a spring 2023 reveal. In the more distant future, La Plaza may open a parking garage with a 50,000-square-foot venue on top for hosting quinceñeras, weddings, concerts, and community events.
McMurrain estimates that more than half of the products sold on-site will be sourced from Mexico, but, like the food truck gathering outside, the idea is to give an expansive view of Latin American culture.
Mike Ferrufino, president and CEO of the Colorado Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and organizational partner to the La Plaza team, envisions La Plaza visitors engaging with the colorful, not-monolithic spirit of Colorado’s Hispanic population. “There’s beauty through the sights, smells, and sounds of the breadth of the Latino community in its whole,” he says. Patrons might enjoy Salvadoran pupusas, Peruvian pisco sours, or Leyva’s Sonoran-style tacos al carbón, all while connecting with folks of different nationalities, ages, genders, and degrees of assimilation and acculturation to the United States.
“As someone who advocates and supports Hispanic-owned businesses,” Ferrufino says, “[La Plaza] is a great catalyst for the community; and it’s a reminder how important an economic driver for our city and state this community is.”
Considering the Denver Metro area is almost one-quarter Hispanic, and the Denver and Aurora school district near the development have populations that are about 57 percent Hispanic, Ferrufino sees the La Plaza plan as one that invests in the state’s future workforce, consumers, and voters.
“There’s a unique fear of failure and fear of success with being an entrepreneur,” Ferrufino says. Food and hospitality businesses are often the most challenging to find lasting success in, he adds, especially for Hispanic proprietors who tend to have less access to capital and infrastructure.
Lowered barriers of entry, then, are key to La Plaza’s model for equitable growth. Food trucks and outside vendors have a starting rent of $300 and $100 per month, respectively. Meanwhile, indoor shop owners sign 30-day leases rather than multi-year contracts so they don’t feel locked in; and will pay as little as $400 a month for their space on a scale that’s relative to their sales income. They also aren’t required to go through a credit check. It’s an attractive offer to underrepresented entrepreneurs—of the almost 300 businesses included in the indoor project, so far around 55 percent are Hispanic woman-owned.
“I can’t tell you how many banks turned us down,” says McMurrain, referring to funding the unique venture. “It took the bank to think outside the box, it took investors that believe in the model and the community.”
McMurrain and Naha expect their relationship with entrepreneurs in the space will be less like a landlord-tenant transaction, and more of a partnership. McMurrain pledges to not raise rents on anyone to the extent that they are put out of business. They’ll use a point-of-sale technology that tracks each shop’s income and expense ratios, and set rent according to volume of sales.
“As their partner, you participate in the upside and downside,” McMurrain says. “So if you have a good day, we have a good day, you have a bad day, we have a bad day. We’re in the business to help people start businesses and grow those new businesses and help provide for their families.”
Partnerships like the one with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce—which provides resources for grant applications, marketing, websites, and e-commerce—add to the supportive network at La Plaza. Seven grants, brought together by the organization, have already been awarded to help develop businesses.
“Creating a little bit more of a community, that’s where we [the partnership] come in,” Ferrufino says. “To try to thread the pieces together, to make sure the fabric of this American Dream tapestry is there with a greater amount of empathy for everybody collectively.”
What gives this tapestry character, says McMurrain, is what the businesses and community bring to the space. Vendors have gathered for holiday parties and potlucks, and hosted a lowrider car show in the parking lot. “Doug and I won’t stand in their way,” Naha says. “It’s really their space. They’ll have more of the destiny in their hands than the average shopping center.”