Changes on 14th Street NW Bring Challenges for Mom-and-Pop Shops

Rosemarie Salguero, of the Mid-14th Street Business Association, wants a hub of Central American culture.
Rosemarie Salguero, of the Mid-14th Street Business Association, wants a hub of Central American culture. (By Alejandro Lazo -- The Washington Post)
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Monday, August 25, 2008

One of the Washington area's oldest Central American commercial strips consists of about a dozen blocks of storefront pupusarías, beauty salons, check-cashing depots and Latin variety stores along 14th Street NW, north of Park Road. Many of these mom-and-pop businesses cater to the neighborhood's immigrants, but that formula may have to change as the area rapidly gentrifies, business owners in the area say.

A Target-anchored shopping center opened in March just south of the strip, part of the District's plan to shore up the city's retail base. Fancy condominiums, restaurants, shops, a refurbished Tivoli Theatre and a Giant grocery store have also opened in Columbia Heights in recent years, attracting professionals.

The fresh brick-and-mortar of these developments contrasts sharply to the simpler, immigrant-owned storefronts and churches that occupy 14th Street. But new facades and new plans are on the way.

Jorge Granados, a real estate broker and president of the Mid-14th Street Business Association, which counts 113 of the shops in the area as members, said many of these businesses will have to begin focusing on the neighborhood's new clientele if they want to survive.

"It is a changing demographic," he said.

His association, in conjunction with a District-based nonprofit organization, the Latino Economic Development Corp., has begun an effort to add fresh layers of paint and new signs to many of the businesses. The business association also plans to launch seminars catered to the shop owners starting in September. Rosemarie Salguero, executive director of the association, said one of the goals is to brand the area as a hub of Central American culture.

Yet both Granados and Salguero say the transition will not be easy. Unemployment and vagrancy in the area has picked up with the down economy, they said, and many businesses are getting struck by the combination of high costs and fewer customers. Who will be able to adapt remains to be seen.

Marleny Flores, a Salvadoran immigrant who owns the building where the association has its offices, is one owner who sees opportunity in the new Columbia Heights. Customers have dwindled at her Multi Servicios Latinos, a notary public and translation services business, as more and more Latinos have left for cheaper housing in the suburbs, she said.

She plans to open a cafe called Sweetime Bakery on the bottom floor of her building in the fall. She plans to offer freshly baked Central American goods, Bolivian tea, health shakes and more. By next summer, she hopes to have a full patio up and running, she said.

"For a long time, I have wanted to do this," Flores said. "But I was waiting for the mall, because it will bring new clients.''

This piece was adapted from a post on Alejandro Lazo's "La Plaza" blog, covering the region's Latino business community. His posts appear Thursdays on the WashBiz Blog,

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