El Mercado tenants forced to move

2013-01-13T00:00:00Z 2013-02-08T11:46:01Z El Mercado tenants forced to moveAngela Pittenger Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 13, 2013 12:00 am  • 

El Mercado shopping center was once a thriving place to shop and eat locally.

"It was the perfect go-local place," says Georgeanne Fimbres, owner of Villa Feliz Flowers there. "It was all about Tucson."

But now, its days are numbered. The Mexican-style plaza at Broadway and Wilmot will be replaced by a chain pharmacy.

CVS purchased the shopping center for nearly $3.6 million in December and all tenants were given notices to vacate.

Michael DeAngelis, a CVS spokesperson, said the company will be "moving through the permitting and approval process during 2013 to open a store there in 2014." He declined to comment further.

Although tenants had an idea this would happen, they didn't think it would be so soon.

"Mercado was in bad need of repair and remodel for several years," said Ray Flores, president of El Charro Cafe. "We knew this was inevitable, but it did come up on us fast."

John Kopplin, co-owner of Maya Palace, said he knew something was up when he saw a CVS surveyor banding trees in October or November.

Kopplin co-owns the Maya Palace store with his wife, Susana Kopplin. They are the last of the original tenants of El Mercado.

Maya Palace relocated to El Mercado in November 1978 after being open for about a year at Santa Fe Square on Tanque Verde.

The story of what El Mercado used to be vastly differs from what it is now.

"In its heyday, we couldn't even park in the center because the parking lot filled up," John Kopplin said. "We used to park at the hotel. Now we just park in front of the store."

The shopping center is all but deserted now, with only five remaining tenants.

The weathered parking lot is covered with potholes and the only sounds to be heard are passing traffic and the music coming from El Charro Cafe.

Even so, the owner of Vietnamese restaurant Ha Long Bay, which opened in November 2003, says he had seen a steady increase in customers and revenue year-over-year.

Restaurant owner Trieu Nguyen worries that will change with the move, if he can't find a place nearby.

Nguyen has looked at a few places, but hasn't had much luck.

The restaurant was given 90 days to vacate, which Nguyen feels is not enough.

"I hope CVS can give me just two more months," he said. "They just want us to get out as soon as we can."

Flores, of El Charro, is still trying to negotiate his move-out date with CVS. He said he was only given until the end of the month. "It's hard to unwind a business that's been there 17 years in two weeks," he said.

Flores had hoped ownership of the center would stay local. He said he tried to put a group together to buy it and made an offer, comparable to what CVS paid for it. In the end, CVS got it.

Maya Palace has to relocate by March 25. "I feel they've paid no attention to little retailers," Kopplin said.

The Kopplins plan to move the store to Plaza Palamino, 2960 N. Swan Road.

The sense of community or "the spirit of Mercado," as Georgeanne Fimbres called it, will be missed by its final tenants.

Kathy Thuerbach, executive director of Christian Youth Theater, also located in the center, said, "I love the other tenants. Everybody is so supportive of each other, so it's kind of a bummer to not be working together. But everybody has got to move on."

Thuerbach said the theater will relocate, possibly to the Santa Fe Square at 7000 E. Tanque Verde Road, in 90 to 120 days.

Fimbres looks at moving on as an opportunity for her flower shop.

Villa Feliz Flowers has been at El Mercado since 1987, and has to vacate by sometime in April.

"The hardest part is to pick which option would be best and to keep everything operational with no interruptions," Fimbres said.

She's confident that no matter where she goes, which she doesn't think will be too far, her store will have the "same great flowers and the same great clients."

Flores said plans are in the works for a new restaurant and a related El Charro concept to be opened toward the end of summer.

"I will miss El Mercado very, very much. But, we will fiesta for a few more weeks. It's not over yet."

Even now, El Mercado is a special place to its tenants.

"We opened this place with all our hearts," said Nguyen, owner of Ha Long Bay. "People feel at home here. We're going to make it again after this."

"It was the perfect go-local place. It was all about Tucson."

Georgeanne Fimbres, owner of Villa Feliz Flowers

Contact reporter Angela Pittenger at apitteng@azstarnet.com or 573-4137.

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