Downtown Brown

Barrio businesses are flourishing, but not in downtown Phoenix

"You have to create an atmosphere where you have a lot of small shops, where you have restaurants, and small booths in a food court. You need to go out and look and see [which businesses are] working well, create a small retail atmosphere and bring those people in."

The Hispanic community, she says, has "wonderful small business people, jewelers, restaurants. Why not give them an opportunity to come [downtown]?" As development occurs, Wilcox would like to see the city actively recruit minority-owned small retail.

According to Liz Zamorano, there is little opportunity for Hispanic businesses downtown. "Have you priced commercial space downtown?" she asks, clearly frustrated.

Liz Zamorano of Museo Chicano
Emily Piraino
Liz Zamorano of Museo Chicano

Zamorano is the director of Museo Chicano, a nonprofit gift shop and gallery that has been in various locations downtown for the past 14 years.

Museo Chicano moved into its current space at 147 East Adams four years ago and is struggling, Zamorano admits. "We haven't seen the traffic," she says, "even though we are in the center of Convention Alley."

Like El Portal's Wilcox, Zamorano would love to keep the museum open at night, and she's tried, but revenues didn't justify the extended hours.

Affordable housing would help, she argues. But that's not easy. "It's a chicken-and-the-egg situation. To have a viable business downtown you need to be in business seven days a week, and you have to have the traffic to sustain that."

Not all Hispanic-owned businesses are service-oriented. Millie Gonzalez, who chairs the Valleywide United Latino Business Coalition, an association formed in 2001 to find and promote business opportunities for its members, says the face of Latino business is slowly changing. "More and more Latino businesses are crossing over to another market," she says, moving into white-collar positions.

Gonzalez says there is a growing number of companies like hers that would benefit from a downtown location. "People have a notion that Latino businesses are mostly labor-intensive, like cleaning services or landscaping," she says, adding that that's not true.

Gonzalez runs a high-tech staffing company, Minority Information Technology and Engineering Solutions. After operating successfully from her home in Scottsdale for years, Gonzalez is considering a January move to central Phoenix, closer to downtown, somewhere with conference space, a receptionist, and a more appropriate place to receive clients than her living room. Gonzalez can't afford it on her own, and is partnering with two other Latino businesses that will share the expense and space.

A handful of club owners seem to have been the most successful at enticing Hispanic people downtown -- to party.

Taking a cue from the immensely popular nightclubs along 16th Street and Van Buren, club owners are luring substantial numbers of Hispanics downtown with weekly Latin nights. Clubs like Sky Lounge, Club Downtown, and Jackson's on 3rd see huge crowds of young Hispanics. Even the Hard Rock Cafe has dedicated Thursdays to Latin ladies.

Steve Glum, senior director of marketing for the chain, says the Latina nights have "been real successful" since their inception a year and a half ago. "We teach salsa, we have a DJ in there, sometimes a band, but mainly a DJ. . . . We get two, three, sometimes four hundred people."

But at the end of the night, clubgoers head straight to parking garages.

And then to places like El Norteño, the perfect spot to unwind after a night of music and dancing.

On a recent Friday night, couples gathered at the tiny restaurant, eating and laughing as they absorbed the sights and smells of the street, the soundtrack an irrepressible urban rhythm thumped out by the throbbing bass of a car stereo, punctuated by an occasional squeal of tires.

Perhaps it's the empty banks and law firms to the east that make nights at El Norteño seem special. Out of the clutches of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, with no ambassadors to protect tourists from the grit and color of the street, El Norteño doesn't just thrive, it sings.

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