Thirteen is proving to be a lucky number for everyone connected with Mercado San Agustín—with 13 vendors in the initial site and another 13 in the Annex, a new (and unique-for-Tucson) shopping center that will hold an official grand opening the weekend of May 4.

It’s a dream come true for Mercado District guru Kira Dixon-Weinstein, who has worked since opening the Mercado in 2010 to get small businesses more involved.  The original footprint filled to capacity and merchants were being turned away because there was no room at the inn.

To find the space, Dixon-Weinstein came up with the idea of using shipping containers, placeholders for a corner that is expected to ultimately be the site of a multi-story building.  But for now, it’s Tucson’s latest retail outlet for a variety of items ranging from plant-based burgers made from beans, grains and veggies to coffee, ice cream, craft beer, wine and spirits.  

Annex tenants aren’t all focused on food and drink. Other businesses will offer clothing, interior design services, photography and home décor items. The annex Festival Grounds will provide a venue (in partnership with Flam Chen) for concerts and other public events.  

In addition to the opening of the retail complex of modified shipping containers “architecturally compelling and modern in nature” according to advance notice, the weekend will also stage the annual Mercado Spring Bazaar and the Mercado District Block Party. More to the point about the container businesses: “The juxtaposition of the Spanish Colonial style Mercado and the new modern Annex together create a dynamic experience as seen in great cities around the world.”  

The modified shipping containers range in size from 300 to 1,400 square feet, with design coordinated by local architect Paul Weiner.  

“The strategy of using repurposed shipping containers was compelling as was the proximity to the street car, the bike path and historic A Mountain,” said one of the new tenants, Kerry Lane of Beaut Burger.  

When the original Mercado opened, Dixon-Weinstein said there was nothing on the westside. “The initial Mercado was a part of the Mercado District, a market district like you’ll find in vibrant cities worldwide and that’s our ultimate vision, a grand-scale public market,” she said. “But we weren’t ready to pull that trigger yet, so we settled on the shipping container idea as a placeholder for, say, the next decade before the next phase of development.”

Although there are some container residential units in the works, there are no other container shopping sites locally.  Dixon-Weinstein said the patina on the rustic containers is beautiful.

The development is another boost in the economy.  At $4.4 million, Rio Nuevo supplied half the project funding to make it possible.  

“You can’t go out and just get financing for something of this caliber without some sort of community development participation,” Dixon-Weinstein said.

Basing annual tax revenue projections on what is already seen at the Mercado itself (Sales tax revenues are $450,000 annually) and add that same amount from the Annex, and it’s getting close to a million a year in sales taxes alone. That’s significant because those dollars are kept right here in Tucson.

Ironically, the opening weekend comes right after the National Day of Prayer, and it’s taken a few of those as well as persistency, passion and a lot of hard work to make those doors open.  

“First it was Christmas 2017 as an opening date, which was pretty iffy because of a local construction industry labor shortage,” Dixon-Weinstein said. “So we set our sights on a grand opening in time for the Gem Show, and didn’t hit that mark. Students and snowbirds are headed out of town now, and a May opening coincides with the advent of summertime heat, but we didn’t want our 13 new tenants to miss out on part of their season, so we’re welcoming Tucsonans who spend the summer here to join us and see what we’re so excited about.”  

The MSA Annex grand opening coincides with the seven-year anniversary of the original Mercado.

“For us, the Gadsden Company, we’re a small-business family affair with my father (Jerry Dixon), husband (Adam Weinstein), and myself,” she said. “We were able to ride out the recession, get through those slowdowns and hiccups and still stick to our vision for how we see Tucson. We had a lot of opportunities with developers who wanted to turn this place into an outlet mall—but you can find those anywhere.”

To celebrate the proverbial overnight success that has taken years to come to fruition, a weekend-long block party is planned with a pop-up market, food trucks and a full roster of entertainment ranging from Tom Walbank to Howe Gelb, Giant Sand, mariachis and the Flam Chen performers. Mercado San Agustín is located at 100 S. Avenida del Convento. 

Lee Allen is an Inside Tucson Business freelance writer.

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