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Garfield Park-Alger Heights-Grandville Ave

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For residents on Grandville Avenue, businesses on the corridor offer sustainability and community

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Vicente Velazquez Ramirez and Fluvia Gonzales hold Delayza inside Xela Store


Xela Store

Vicente Velazquez Ramirez, owner of Xela Store, a business located on Grandville Avenue, shares his journey in entrepreneurship and the barriers of redlining he has faced in building a successful business.
The shimmering afternoon sunlight reflects off the big side windows of the building at 1509 Grandville Ave SW. The building sits near the end of Grandville Avenue mere steps from the busy intersection of Clyde Park and Grandville Avenue. Though the building appears small from the outside, lining the inside walls of the 2000 square foot space are hard-to-find Central American products that bring a taste of home to every customer who walks and a pleasant surprise of Daleyza, a smiling infant sitting up quietly in the arms of her father, Vicente Velazquez Ramirez. 

Xela Store is owned and operated by Velazquez Ramirez, who is originally from San Marcos, Guatemala, a town located near the Mexican border.

Velazquez Ramirez remembers the first day he opened the store, on February 25th, 2012.

It was unusually chilly morning, but he was excited to be able to launch a venture he had been saving up ever since he arrived to the United States in 1998.
Vincente Velazquez Ramirez proudly stands behind the counter at Xela Store.

Velazquez Ramirez bought Xela Store from his friend Eliazar Minera, who was selling Tienda Xela because he was returning home in Guatemala. Velazquez Ramirez changed the name to Xela Store to keep the legacy of Tienda Xela while making the business his own. To be able to purchase the store, Velazquez Ramirez had to ask loans from several family members.

“I had to ask for a loan from a couple of family members and friends because as you know the bank makes it very difficult to ask for a loan. If one doesn’t have a high enough credit then they deny the type of loan we need for the purchase,” explains Velazquez Ramirez.

Velazquez Ramirez further adds that being able to understand the way building financial credit operates in the United States was a barrier when he was trying to gather enough money for the purchase. The entrepreneur explains that he felt more comfortable requesting a loan from family and friends because of the rapport he had built with them. With this experience, Velazquez Ramirez felt the left-over effects of redlining.

Redlining is a racist practice where financial services and goods are denied to individuals of a certain race or ethnicity. Author and historian Todd Robinson pointing out in his book, “A City Within A City,” retells the story of a black real estate agent who issued a complaint on behalf of his client in 1956. The complaint stated in Robinson’s work says the client “had applied for a mortgage at three banks, two mortgage companies, and a savings and loan association, without success.”

The customer was told that the banks didn’t have enough funds to make the loan and other two places explained they only gave loans out to their own customers. In the city of Grand Rapids, redlining practices continued for decades, as detailed in this 1991 pamphlet issued by a group called Coalition for Community Reinvestment. This pamphlet utilized data from the Home Disclosure Act reports from the three of the city’s largest banks and found that out of the 1449 total mortgages given out only 8 percent of these went to folks living downtown Grand Rapids. At the time, the downtown area was occupied by a majority of residents of color.

To address the after effects felt by many in the Latinx community of Grand Rapids, The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is launching their “Transformando West Michigan” project. This project is a long-term endeavor funded by the newly formed West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Foundation, a non-profit organization offering programming and support to Latinx business owners, entrepreneurs, and professionals. Their focus is the Latinx community in West Michigan.

“Transformando West Michigan will focus on the revitalization of Hispanic businesses in West Michigan by collaborating with both the private and public sector to help to qualify Hispanic businesses to access resources that are not currently available to them," explains Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Cisneros shares that this will be a way for folks like Velazquez Ramirez to better connect to financial and educational resources through partnerships with the private and public sector. The program is offered primarily to already established businesses. Other resources are available in the community for individuals who may not yet have established a business endeavor through the Hispanic Center’s Tuesday evening business start-up class led by Carlos Sanchez, Director of the Latino Business and Economic Development Center at Ferris State University.
Enemias Velazquez helps assist customers at Xela Store
For Velazquez Ramirez, knowledge of language was also difficult because he was unsure how to fill out the necessary city paperwork to be able to run his business. This paperwork is only offered in English. Velazquez Ramirez explains that his cousin owns a distribution company called Pro-Farm in Columbus, Ohio and he was able to guide him through the process as he had done it before when he opened Pro-Farm and has a better handle on the English language.

“At first I didn’t know how to register the store, or buy the product, but my cousin explained everything to me, and it helped me get started,” says Velazquez Ramirez.

When the store first opened in 2012, he was the only paid employee but now the store employs three individuals: his brother, Enemias Velazques, wife, Fluvia Gonzales, and cousin, Etelvina Gonzales. Etelvina runs the restaurant in the back.. The restaurant, explains Velazquez Ramirez, was another way to maximize the space while continuing to offer the surrounding community a taste of home.
Every morning when Velazquez Ramirez open the store he checks to ensure every product available is in perfect condition for the customer.
On Grandville Avenue, commercial businesses make up the majority of businesses at 76 percent and industrial businesses make up 17 percent of all business in the area according to data obtained by the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.

While food business on make up 22 percent of all business, and healthcare businesses like pharmacies make up less than 1 percent of all businesses. Make it all the more critical for places like Xela Store to remain open; they do not only offer residents food products, but also sell over the counter medications. Velazquez Ramirez’ business helps fill a gap in the area by offering these products.

“I live in the area and I want my customers to not have to go great distances to get medicines, produce, and food products from home,” shares Velazquez Ramirez.

For Velazquez Ramirez, his customers come first. This is evidenced by the customers who flood his store in the afternoon hours and are greeted on a first-name basis by Velazquez Ramirez, who sits behind the counter ready to serve the next customer who walks in with a smile.

Velazquez Ramirez stocks up the aisles with Productos Diana, snack products from Central America, at Xela StoreVelazquez Ramirez states an answer to help businesses like his be successful is community support. “Tell others about what we offer,” expresses the entrepreneur. Velazquez Ramirez hopes one day, Daleyza will help take the business to another level when she grows up.

On The Ground GR
On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the Grandville Avenue of Grand Rapids.

Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.

You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

On The Ground GR is made possible by The Frey Foundation, The Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Steelcase Foundation organizations working to guarantee all communities thrive.

Photography by Dreams by Bella.
 
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