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San Rafael Builds an Economic Incubator for Everyone Else

Economic development benefits more than just the tech industry. 



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In 2013, Mario Perez wanted to own a business. He’d spent the last few years selling clothing out of his van, but couldn’t fund a solid storefront out of his own pocket. When San Rafael’s Canal District Welcome Center announced their interest in starting a cultural marketplace for low-income entrepreneurs, Perez finally got his chance. He started selling clothing in La Placita, and six months later had enough confidence and capital to open his own store.

“La Placita is a culturally appropriate environment, where we provide a safe space for our residents to show up, to socialize, and be part of the cultural life of the community,” says Douglas Mundo, executive director of the CDWC and the leading force behind La Placita, which is modeled after the open-air markets popular throughout Latin America.

In addition to being a safe place for Canal District families to shop and socialize, La Placita is an opportunity for beginning entrepreneurs to learn the laws of the trade, establish their own business ideas and build a following in the community. Some sell clothing, while others sell food, furniture, art, or even a talent (local musicians perform on rotation, and there is even a clown!). The space acts as a business incubator, while the CDWC staff encourage and educate residents on what it takes to expand their professional endeavors.

Prior to the La Placita’s beginning, Canal District residents (a large majority of which are low-income, Hispanic families) came to Mundo, explaining that they wanted to start businesses but didn’t know where to start. On top of providing a space, CDWC provides guidance in navigating business permits and county regulations, while educating on insurance and training. The only stipulation is that they have to have a Marin county address.

As most commercial districts can attest, the biggest problem that plagued La Placita from the beginning was a lack of parking (looking at you, Mission). There wasn’t enough space for the vendors’ vans, let alone all the shoppers. Last month, the market began operating out of a much more spacious, county-owned spot with tons of parking. On top of that, they’ve expanded to every Saturday.

Stories like Perez’s are becoming the norm at the marketplace. Since leaving La Placita, he has not only opened (and sold) his clothing store, but began a second business: a grocery store frequented by many of the same clientele that once bought clothing from the back of his van.


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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