It’s a weekday in mid-July and small businesses are using the kitchen and freezers at the South Valley Economic Development Center, readying their business for sales later in the week.
Workers at the Agri-Cultura Network, a farm-to-table cooperative that brings produce from South Valley growers to local supermarkets, are hard at work washing vegetables before they hit store shelves.
The cooperative has a long-standing partnership with the Rio Grande Community Development Corp. — the organization that oversees SVEDC and other initiatives focused on food insecurity and business incubation.
Just down the street, organizers with a group focused on getting underserved communities to vote is holding a meeting in one of the spaces at the Social Enterprise Center, a building that is privately owned and run by Partnership for Community Action.
PCA has a focus on education, economic sustainability, health equity and immigrant rights. The organization does a little bit of everything that helps residents in this area succeed. The center has a main tenant — Southwest Creations Collaborative, an industrial sewing manufacturer — that leases space in the building, providing jobs for many Spanish-speaking residents in the area. When the center opened in June, PCA said it would directly support 77 jobs over the next nine years.
PCA and RGCDC are just two of a few organizations in the area looking to change the negative perception of the South Valley as an area with low economic potential, and are providing residents in this area with jobs and an opportunity to bring their ideas to fruition.
“At the end of the day RGCDC was created for the community to have a voice and have a way to make change,” said Josue Olivares, executive director of RGCDC. “And that’s something that we need to make sure that continues to happen.”
Incubating business, providing opportunity
RGCDC was founded in 1986. The organization’s original focus was to serve the needs of residents and businesses in the area.
That mission has continued in recent years, with a primary emphasis on incubation of small businesses that focus on food.
The organization does that through the SVEDC, which offers a commercial-grade kitchen for businesses to test and create their products.
There’s the Semilla program that introduces prospective or early-stage small business owners to a wealth of information to determine whether their business model or food product is viable for long-term success.
There is also the Mixing Bowl program, which allows small business owners to take advantage of the commercial-grade kitchen to produce their food products in larger quantities with the hopes of eventually getting those products into stores.
But RGCDC’s initiatives aren’t necessarily limited to incubating businesses, however. The organization also has another initiative, Delicious New Mexico, that focuses on small- to medium-volume distribution services for local farmers and food producers in the South Valley.
Delicious New Mexico has developed relationships with stores across the state.
“We found a lot of gaps within small markets being able to get into retail, along with distribution issues and making connections throughout the state of New Mexico,” said Sean Humphrey, the manager for Delicious New Mexico. “Another side of it also is looking at food deserts within the state (and) getting enough food access to those areas as well through the distribution.”
Olivares said RGCDC is always looking for new opportunities to serve the community, whether that’s partnering with other local organizations to make that happen or even finding new programs and initiatives to offer. In fact, the SVEDC is expanding with an additional 16,000 square feet of space for cold storage and production — paving the way for the organization to serve an even larger array of entrepreneurs in the future.
Southwest Creations Collaborative operates as the main tenant down the street at the newly opened Social Enterprise Center.
SCC fills about half the space at the 14,000-square-foot facility. Women who work at the facility are offered child care that costs just 25 cents an hour, making it easier for them to support their families.
More than 40 people currently employed by SCC — mostly Hispanic women — sew a variety of products from dog collars to tote bags and everything in between for both local and non-local companies.
SCC Executive Director Susan Matteucci said the sewing business — which is registered as a nonprofit — is more like a family than a typical job where you come in from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“I think what the Social Enterprise Center does is build on the strengths of the community, not the weaknesses,” she said. “And why I say that is a lot of nonprofits and social enterprise (centers) focus only where people think the employment sector would be. … It’s not based on the fact that people need access to good jobs that are consistent, that are well paying, that value them as a person, that value their families, that value what attitudes they could add.”
PCA’s associate director Nichelle Gilbert, the organization that runs the Social Enterprise Center, said they also have a focus on helping small businesses in the community, pointing toward the help they provide in the child care sector. Gilbert said the organization helps these people with understanding licensing and connecting them to resources to get their business going.
“Being able to act as a resource for that group to make the business side more accessible to help to invest in a structure as they go from serving six children to 12 children, or they grow from needing to modify their house or their background for a playground — that’s this idea of incubation,” Gilbert said.
The South Valley is known for many things, but crime and poverty have often overshadowed the area’s rich history.
Words like “deficient” and “struggle” are how outsiders tend to view the South Valley. But local leaders say the residents of the South Valley are better described as passionate, creative, vibrant and committed, said Javier Martínez, executive director for PCA and a Democratic lawmaker in the New Mexico House of Representatives.
“These are people that don’t give up,” Martínez said. “Regardless of how other communities or other politicians might view us, we are relentless and we are powerful. … For all the perceptions about us, we’re proving them wrong.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the nature of the Social Enterprise Center. The center is privately owned.