SEATTLE – In his early twenties, Mateo Monda, a Seattle native and first-generation Irish, English and French-American, was eager to learn more about Mexican culture. That curiosity eventually led him on an unlikely journey.
“I began dabbling in Mexican media,” he said. What began as curiosity into Latino culture led Mondo to spend fifteen years living in Mexico. His expatriate experience proved to be an epiphany. He married a Mexican woman, had two Mexican-born daughters, and became the publisher of a Hispanic newspaper, El Diablito.
Returning to Seattle, Monda, at age 42, began exploring ways to promote Latino culture and spur Latino-based entrepeneurship in the region. The logical starting place was his community of Burien, which has one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the region.
The timing proved to be propitious. At about the same time, an old friend and board member of the Discover Burien Association reached out to him to explore ways to better interact with the Latino community.
The result was a new business venture, El Tianquis, the first Latino-themed seasonal open-air market in the region. Operated by El Mercado, PC, a non-profit organization Monda established last year, El Tianquis’ focus was Latino food and small vendors.
Launched last summer, the project fizzled. By his own admission, Monda said that the start-up public market had to overcome several obstacles. “Burien is a hard place to get to,” he said. “The market opened during the end of the season, and it rained almost everyday.”
Although his initial foray into the world of business ran aground, the dream of a multicultural bazaar never left him. Undeterred, Monda scouted other locales for his public market vision. He began looking at the neighborhood south of Columbia City, a bustling, multi-ethnic community with a large Vietnamese and Filipino population, and growing East African presence.
Strategically situated a stone’s throw from Sound Transit’s South Othello Street Station, the public market site is located at the intersection of Martin Luther King Way S. and S. Othello Street. Monda hit upon the logical place to resurrect his business venture. The result is the Othello Public Market, scheduled to open on April 1.
“Our plan is to help struggling members of our community start up micro-enterprises and invite the general public to share in a cultural experience unlike any other in the region,” Monda said. The market will be a catalyst that provides new business opportunities for first- and second-generation immigrants who might not otherwise have the opportunity to launch their businesses, he added.
“The 98118 zip code is the most diverse area in the U.S,” he said. “It’s really the true International District. It is a vibrant multicultural community with everything from trendy Vietnamese eateries to Buddhist temples.” The project has received community support including small funding through the City of Seattle Office of Economic Development (OED).
Last month, OED awarded $125,000 in Only in Seattle grant funding to the Martin Luther King/ Rainier Valley district. Homesight, a non-profit community development organization and lead agency, and the Martin Luther King Business Association, have worked in close partnership with Monda to lay the groundwork for the Othello project.
“We’re excited that projects like the Othello Public Market that bring more businesses will strengthen the economic vibrancy of the area,” said OED spokesperson Karin Zaugg Black. “Our office has been very supportive and think it’s a good idea.”
Steve Rauf, CEO of Othello Partners, which owns the property that Monda will lease, also is enthusiastic about the market’s potential. Rauf developed an interest in a public market after seeing the success of the market in Columbia City. He sees the Othello Public Market as the cornerstone and anchor for future business development.
“I have lived here for eleven years and have always wanted an international market for this area. I think it capitalizes on the international flavor of the area.”
Beyond promoting small Latino businesses, Monda’s goal is to reach out to the wider Asian community.
“Vietnamese food is hip now, and the market will be close to popular restaurants like the Saigon Deli, Q Restaurant, Seattle Deli, and Tony’s Bakery.”
Vu Le, executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association, whose office is situated near the venture in King Plaza, is enthusiastic about the market.
“King Plaza already is a huge hub of Vietnamese business activity. It’s a very diverse area, and there are a lot of Vietnamese restaurants there.”
The Othello Public Market will have space for eighty indoor vendor stalls and eighty outdoor stalls, and feature a multicultural potpourri of food like Sweet Bones Louisiana barbeque, European sausages, Somali cuisine, as well as more traditional Asian fare.
Monda sees the market as more than an entrepreneurial enterprise, however. He believes it will bring the community and city together. Tony To, executive director of Homesight, which helps administer the OED funding for the project, agrees that the public market will help stimulate neighborhood revitalization.
“The market is a good idea,” To said. “We need to bring more people to the Othello area. It’s an overheated housing market, and a lot of building facilities have pushed rents up last year. We were concerned about the impact of Sound Transit’s light-rail station on immigrant businesses in the area. We hope the public market will draw people from all over the region,” he said.
“It will have a variety of features that will appeal to people,” Monda said. He envisions the Othello Public Market as an international Pike Place Market that would combine elements from both farmers’ and flea markets that would be modeled after traditional markets native to countries all over the world.
“The vendor stalls will represent five continents, including Asian, Pacific Islander, Oceanic, African American, African, Caribbean, Latino, European, Middle Eastern and Native American cultures,” Monda said. “It will be a comfortable place for people to explore other cultures, where they can visit a Chinese herb shop next to an Islamic bookstore. It will be open to all people and bring people of all cultures together.”
The Othello Public Market’s grand opening is scheduled for Friday, April 1, 2011. It is located at 4200 S. Othello St., Seattle. If you are an interested vendor, please contact Mateo Monda at (206) 334-2285. For more information, visit www.publicmarket.org.