Stephen Lemons Column

South Phoenix Mom-and-Pops Worry About Lost Business If Prop 105 Fails

Carlos Cárdenas, chef and owner of Mariscos El Dorado at 5630 South Central Avenue, showing the tattoos on his arms honoring his family.
Stephen Lemons
Carlos Cárdenas, chef and owner of Mariscos El Dorado at 5630 South Central Avenue, showing the tattoos on his arms honoring his family.
Stepping into the Mexican restaurant La Olmeca, located in south Phoenix's South Plaza at Southern and Central avenues, is a little like stepping into a time warp. The place has an old-school 1970s feel, with its wood paneling, a backlit green and yellow menu above the counter, and a large Olmec head painted on one wall. 

Georgia Martinez, her husband, Mauricio, or some member of her family is usually behind the cash register taking customers' orders for camarones a la diabla, torta al pastor, chicken mole, or a super "Olmeca" burrito with beef or chicken. They'll even grill up a cheeseburger and fries, if you want.

Today, Martinez's 3-year-old granddaughter, Gia, is playing barefoot nearby, as Martinez sits next to me explaining why she opposes the extension of the light rail 5.5 miles from downtown to Baseline Road. Basically, it comes down to the disruption from construction and the attendant traffic delays that she anticipates will accompany the project, which could begin as early as this fall and not see completion till 2023.

"They say they're going to try to not hurt businesses," Martinez says of the Valley Metro representatives she's spoken with. "But you don't really know that."

Martinez is one of a number of business owners up and down the South Central Avenue corridor who I've talked to, all with signs in their doors and windows urging people to vote "yes" on Prop 105, an initiative that comes up for a vote on August 27, along with another initiative aimed at reducing the city's pension debt, Prop 106.

Prop 105 aims to halt all future light rail expansion in the Valley and redirect billions of dollars from the city toward other transportation infrastructure improvement projects, such as fixing roads. If it passes, Phoenix will lose out on billions of dollars more in federal and regional funds dedicated to light rail.

If it fails, however, small businesses in south Phoenix are almost guaranteed to take a hit, perhaps a fatal one. Like a lot of small business owners, Martinez pays rent month-to-month. She also has to make payroll for five employees. Some of her lunch crowd comes from outside the immediate area. If they cannot easily access South Plaza's parking lot, they may choose to go elsewhere.

She and her husband have owned La Olmeca for almost 25 years. They've raised two daughters and survived the 2008 recession. If her business declines during construction, she might be able to cut her employees' hours to get by.

I ask her if she's considered moving her business.

"No," she says, resigned. "If we close, we close for good."

We're Here to Help

Dressed in a black chef's smock, Carlos Cardenas comes close to tears as he describes his predicament. He and his wife worked menial jobs for years until they had enough money to purchase their own food truck. Then, they slaved for several years more until they could afford their own place, Mariscos El Dorado, a blue and white stucco eatery at 5630 South Central Avenue with a long outdoor patio, over which hangs a large banner that reads, "Vote YES on Prop 105."

On the weekends, hundreds of people descend on Cardenas' establishment, drink ice-cold bottles of beer by the bucket, listen to live bands, and devour ceviches, mojarra fritas, and humongous Sinaloan-style towers of seafood with layers of shrimp, octopus, fresh vegetables, and fruit, topped with sliced avocado and dribbled over with salsa negra.

He employs 20 people, whom he'll have to lay off if business goes south. And he estimates he and his family will be out $35,000 to $45,000 if they have to fold. He opposes the expansion because of the "long construction time" and the fact that the plan calls for reducing what is now a four-lane thoroughfare to two lanes of traffic with the light rail running between them.

"They're not thinking about the businesses," Cardenas says. "They don't care who they're going to destroy."

Valley Metro claims traffic will flow better with two lanes instead of four, though the folks I spoke with in south Phoenix seemed unconvinced. Susan Tierney, a spokesperson for Valley Metro, told me via email that never will the entire stretch of South Central be closed at one time. The construction will occur in segments, though the exact plan has yet to be ironed out.

"Valley Metro will ensure all access to businesses is maintained while construction is underway," she writes.

The transportation agency also boasts a business assistance program, which Tierney says will help local businesses with marketing, one-on-one mentoring, and "wayfinding signage." She also explains that Valley Metro has brought in experts to help owners "develop and implement individualized plans that strengthen their businesses."

But, significantly, Tierney says that because the project includes federal money, Federal Transit Administration regulations preclude Valley Metro from offering direct financial aid to businesses.

Asked about Valley Metro's offers of assistance, both Martinez and Cardenas seemed unimpressed.

"They want to help me with stupid things," Cardenas explains. "They say they're gonna help me with flyers and promotions. I don't need that, I already have that."

Martinez says she was also offered help with promotions, such as one for "Taco Tuesday," which already ran on social media.

"It's good," Martinez says of the promotion. "But [customers from the ad] only come in one day a week."

Indeed, the help being offered by Valley Metro kinda reminds you of that old joke Ronald Reagan was fond of, though Ed Muskie, longtime U.S. Senator from Maine and liberal Democrat apparently told it first: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

Snorting Koch

It's a staple of progressive dogma that light rail is a good thing, though there are studies that show it doesn't pencil out. Of course, there are a lot of things that don't pencil out that we still pay for with our taxes. The U.S. military budget comes to mind. Ditto the Department of Homeland Security and all of its ass-backwards, police-state machinations.

Similarly, the Koch bothers (Charles and David, to be precise) trigger leftists as much as billionaire liberal George Soros drives conservatives apeshit. Anything they're involved in becomes anathema to their ideological opponents, and Koch-aligned organizations have backed successful anti-light rail initiatives in other cities.

Elements of the Koch network have been involved in the Prop 105 effort, as Phoenix New Times reporter Steven Hsieh recently documented. A Koch-fueled "dark money" effort has yet to appear, but that could change. So far, according to the most recent campaign finance reports, the Prop 105 campaign is being funded by local business people.

Still, the Koch influence is seen by many as evidence that Prop 105 is irrevocably tainted. Mayor Kate Gallego has effectively used fear of dark money as a political Babadook to convince her fellow Dems in this blue city that a vote for Prop 105 is a de facto endorsement of the Koch brothers' fossil-fuels villainy. 

Reality is rarely so black and white, or in this case, brown and white. South Phoenix is historically a Latino community, and for many years, redlining and racial covenants kept nonwhites from venturing north of Van Buren Street. For this and other reasons, Mexicans emigrating to the Valley often settled south of the railroad tracks.

Over time, south Phoenix developed a distinctly Mexican-American culture, with barrios filled with residents proud of their neighborhoods and their lineage. And if you drive down South Central toward South Mountain, you will experience a commercial corridor quite different from anywhere in north Phoenix or Scottsdale. 

Panderias, carnicerias, dulcerias, taco shops, and mariscos places dot the passage throughout. There are numerous other Latino-owned businesses like tire shops, auto mechanics. Even franchise businesses, such as Ace Hardware, are owned by Latinos fearful of the light rail expansion.

No wonder, then, that there are more "Yes on 105" signs along South Central than throughout the rest of the Valley. As for the signs and banners on businesses in south Phoenix, the Koch brothers didn't put them there.

Golden Gate Redux?

Veteran community activist Sal Reza opposes the light rail expansion, and he and his group, the Barrio Defense Committees, have been active allies of Building a Better Phoenix, the local group behind Prop 105. The Barrio Defense Committees does not accept donations and Reza is not paid for his work.

Reza helped organize the resistance to Arizona's "papers please" law, SB 1070, and for years, he was Sheriff Joe Arpaio's fiercest enemy. He says he got involved because south Phoenix businesses reached out to him.

"What people lose sight of is that there are 80 businesses that are going to get affected," he tells me. "If they do mention it, it's collateral damage that basically is for the 'greater good.' Tell that to somebody that's about to lose his business for the greater good."

He fears the light rail expansion in south Phoenix will be a death blow to the working-class community that now lives there, along the lines of what happened when the city razed the historic Golden Gate barrio in the 1970s and 1980s, relocating 6,000 residents and displacing even more to make way for the expansion of Sky Harbor International Airport.

But in this case, Reza believes that what will destroy the South Central corridor will be gentrification, facilitated by the light rail. Property values will go up, old businesses will go bye-bye, cheap apartment buildings will be thrown up, and new, upwardly mobile residents will replace the community that is there.

"There will be big contractors with big greed coming in because they see a boom," Reza says.

Indeed, the city's power structure supports the expansion, big time. Lawyers for the Arizona Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America challenged the initiative in court. And as of June 30, according to campaign finance reports on file with the city, Invest in Phoenix, the group opposing Prop 105 and Prop 106, the other initiative on the ballot, had raised more than $257,000.

ASU's investment arm gave it $50,000. Greater Phoenix Leadership donated another $50,000. The transportation company Transdev, formerly Veolia, which partners with Valley Metro to run Phoenix bus routes, gave $20,000. Turf Paradise, $10,000. And so on.

Invest in Phoenix came into existence at the beginning of May. Which is to say the group raised a large amount of money in a very short span of time.

Meanwhile, Building a Better Phoenix raised most of its money in 2018, close to $190,000. For this year, its campaign finance reports show a draw of around $30,000. So far, most of the money has come from local business owners. But that could change.

Will the Koch brothers unleash a dark money kraken between now and August 27? If so, they better hurry up. Early ballots started going out July 31, and voting is underway.

Low Riders and Raspados

Perhaps the consequences of the light rail expansion in south Phoenix will not be as cataclysmic as Reza predicts, assuming Prop 105 fails. But gentrification will inevitably accompany the light rail, and the neighborhood will be altered.

Will families still congregate outside raspados shops on warm summer evenings? Will low riders converge on South Plaza to play oldies and make their Chevys hop as they do each Sunday night?

Juan Rivas, the owner of Alborada Village, a quaint, open-air events venue hidden behind a wall of greenery at Central Avenue and Baseline Road, may lose a piece of his business to the light rail — literally. When I spoke to him recently, he said he was told at one Valley Metro meeting that 10 to 20 feet in front of a coffee shop he owns next to Alborada Village might be taken by the city as part of the light rail expansion.

"That's pretty much one of the major reasons I'm not for the light rail," he explained.

Valley Metro confirmed to me that a "partial property acquisition" may be necessary in front of the coffee shop, but that the city would work with the property owner, who would receive "market value" for whatever is taken.

Rivas says he's concerned that the acquisition could affect parking near Alborada, which is vital for a place like his, since it's rented out for weddings and the like. He's also not happy with the reduction in lanes, which might harm business as well.

To be honest, I don't live in south Phoenix, and I've only rarely used the light rail, though the times I was on it, it was packed with commuters going or coming from work. So I concede its value.

But I have spoken with business owners who barely survived light rail's expansion elsewhere, and I know south Phoenix business owners will suffer. I also fear that Reza is correct on the gentrification tip.

I'm less concerned with the Koch influence on Prop 105 than the fate of these businesses on South Central. As the voters have approved light rail three times in the past, I would normally bet on them voting 105 down, though I give Reza and the rest an outside chance at pulling out an underdog victory.

Whether 105 passes, I plan to spend more time eating my way through south Phoenix and soaking up the barrio vibe down there while it lasts. Should the voters say no to the initiative, it should be incumbent on all those in favor of the light rail expansion to do the same.