Maria Ontiveros has traveled the world and studied and worked abroad, but she still considers Illinois and the Quad Cities home – with a demographic that represents a microcosm of the world.
“Even in the Quad Cities, a bi-state community, it is common for immigrants and refugees to settle in on the Illinois side,” Maria said. “I love having proximity to diverse perspectives and lifestyles. You can’t find that kind of representation in every state.”
For the last four summers, Maria and her family have organized Mercado on Fifth, a vibrant weekly evening market that celebrates the cultural diversity in the area. Located on 5th Avenue in Moline, the market brings together people of all ages and ethnicities for cultural entertainment, delicious food, a variety of shopping, educational programming and networking opportunities.
The idea for a market that would spur community and economic development originated with Maria’s grandfather, Bob Ontiveros, founder of Group O, one of the largest Hispanic-owned businesses in the country. In 2016, Maria returned from teaching in Thailand and helped make her grandfather’s vision a reality.
Mercado on Fifth 2019
· 1,000 participants on average a night.
· At least $175,000 spent with vendors.
· More than 100 different vendors including food and retail, small business promotional booths and non-profit information booths.
· Four employees.
The young entrepreneur received the 2018 River Action Eddy Award for her work bringing together partners from across the Quad Cities to launch Mercado on Fifth, now considered a model for inclusive tourism in the region.
Behind the scenes, Mercado on Fifth and its partners have helped to develop more than 20 new minority-businesses since its debut in 2016. That work was recognized this spring when Mercado on Fifth received a minority-owned business incubator grant from Illinois OMEE. The $500K financial boost will be used to expand programming into an indoor facility.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 global pandemic and subsequent cancellation of a packed summer of 2020 events forced Maria to regroup.
“We had to downsize our team and shift our primary focus from providing a physical platform for businesses to volunteering our expertise to help keep small businesses afloat,” she said. “Our challenge now is to expand and monetize our services over the coming year and grow back our team.”
Mercado’s Strategies That Helped Weather the Storm
· Focus on the positive. We took time to evaluate our role in the community and how to grow strategically.
· Engage people through social media. We promoted businesses with cash mobs and curbside pickup events. We also switched to virtual programming, including free online drumming classes, Mexico bingo, DJ sessions and bilingual story times.
· Share resources. We have been intentional about teaching our vendors how to better use social media effectively.
In today’s constantly changing climate, Maria’s natural optimism is a definite bonus. She uses her family mantra “Why not us?” to maintain focus.
“Make more headspace for optimism and confidence,” she said. “Visualize success rather than failure. Why not you?!”