September 17, 2008

Alton lays down firm rules for bustling flea market

Sara Perkins

In 1996, Norma Ochoa's father opened a flea market on 4 Mile Line because he wanted to help undocumented immigrants who couldn't find jobs.

The market grew in the manner of many local pulgas, attracting people who wanted to make a little money and sell their goods without the regulations and costs imposed on more formal businesses. For as little as $5 a day, nearly anyone can have a stall at Ochoa's Flea Market, which Norma now runs.

Shoppers came, looking for bargains or hard-to-find goods.

Unlike most of the Rio Grande Valley's flea markets, however, Ochoa's is within the borders of a city. And the Alton city government is tightening its enforcement of a variety of laws and regulations that, in this informal marketplace, have held little sway.

"We want to make it more attractive, more people-friendly, and try to (make) a quality area for our residents," said Ricardo Garza, a member of the City Council and president of Alton's economic development corporation.

Garza and city staff insist Ochoa is 100 percent on board with a new ordinance that would further tighten sanitation, building and licensure requirements.

"Our vision is not to run the flea market out," said planning director David DeLeon. Indeed, they hope to make the market a major attraction that will draw business into town. "Any given Sunday, they've got in excess of 200 vendors out there. That is significant for a town like ours."

Ochoa is less enthusiastic about her discussions with the city - "It's whether we want to or not" - and about the new regulations, which would allow the underdeveloped city to reap a windfall in sales taxes and fees, but at her expense.

The new ordinance must pass one more reading before it is approved. Among its new requirements:

>> The market must purchase a $500 yearly operating permit and pay the city $10 per vendor monthly.

>> Ochoa must collect names, addresses, phone numbers and identification numbers from every vendor.

>> Vendors must purchase their own permits from the city, at $20 per year, after proving they have registered with the state comptroller's office and, if selling prepared food, the Hidalgo County Health Department.

>> Vendors cannot sell knockoff, black-market or pirated goods. (Police have raided the market several times and arrested those selling pirated material.)

>> Unpainted or broken tables and shelves cannot be used in stalls.

>> No extension cords or garden hoses - vending stalls must have their own electrical and plumbing systems.

Conditions violating some or all of these standards are common even in upscale flea markets, and Ochoa's is no exception. Flea markets operate more like group garage sales than brick-and-mortar stores.

DeLeon estimated between 10 and 20 percent of the vendors at Ochoa's have permits from the state.

Ochoa said her attempts to cooperate with the city have led to enormous headaches - and costs. Connecting a single potato vendor's regular stall to the city's sewer system, for example, ended up costing the vendor about $4,000 and required other vendors to move around so crews could punch through the asphalt.

She said she cannot stomach that hassle with more food vendors, which may mean that those who regularly sell food from trucks and trailers will be unwelcome once the ordinance is passed and strictly enforced.

Meanwhile, code enforcement and police officers from the city regularly inspect the market, sometimes three or four times a day, she said.

"Sometimes I just want to give up," Ochoa said Wednesday. She has threatened to buy land in unincorporated county areas, where Alton officials would not have authority to inspect her vendors.

Her father started the market when the plot by Conway Avenue was still in county territory; he voluntarily allowed the flea market to be annexed soon after, Ochoa said, but he exacted a promise that city leaders wouldn't bother him too much.

Now, she said, "I'm losing customers ... because they're getting so strict on it."

Sara Perkins covers Mission, western Hidalgo County, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4472.

No comments:

Should the Texas State Legislature pass immigration enforcement laws in 2009?