A former cannery that’s currently an eyesore at a key entrance to downtown Brownsville is in line for a total renovation that will make it an asset and a destination, and a new home for the Brownsville Farmers’ Market in the Mitte Cultural District.
A project to resurrect the Gutierrez Warehouse, a deteriorating Quonset hut at East Sixth and Ringgold streets that’s owned by the city, will receive a $500,000 grant from the Legacy Foundation and $250,000 from the city toward the cost of construction and renovation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Wholesale Market and Food Hub Design Division is contributing $60,000 worth of in-kind design services, and a USDA Healthy Food Financing Initiative grant for $178,575 is pending.
A good estimate for the Cannery Public Market project is $988,575, according to Ramiro Gonzalez, the city’s government affairs liaison, who announced the grants at the April 16 city commission meeting, during which commissioners voted unanimously to accept the Legacy Foundation grant and commit the $250,000 from the city.
“It’s going to happen,” he said in a later interview. “We’re basically moving toward schematic design and final design concepts, and moving toward construction. It’s as done as it could be without it being done.”
The city is partnering with the Brownsville Wellness Coalition, which runs the farmers market, Las Imaginistas and the Rio Grande Valley Food Bank on the project, which is likely to attract more financial support as it gains momentum, Gonzalez said.
Among the project’s benefits are expanded access to healthy foods for residents, since the farmers market will be able to extend its hours, he said. It will also allow the Food Bank to expand its mission of providing emergency food assistance and nutritional education, Gonzalez said.
Around six months ago the city approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the Food Bank and the Wellness Coalition to collaborate on developing a food hub. The city committed to identifying funding sources, providing space for programming, food storage and distribution and office space, providing volunteers and key staff to help with Food Bank services, and authorizing the city manager to engage with other agencies and execute additional MOUs if needed to implement the project.
The Cannery will also house an incubator for small, food-oriented businesses, commonly known as a “kitchen incubator.” In a February meeting with USDA officials that included City Manager Noel Bernal, Gonzalez pitched the incubator and its commercial kitchen as a way of bringing Brownsville’s tamale-making grandmothers out of the shadows.
“The story I told in D.C. was, grandma makes the tamales. We’re trying to make her legit so she can sell them legally,” he said. “They about fell off their chairs and said, ‘We want to fund that.’”
This is first ever round of USDA Healthy Food Financing Initiative grants, and the process is very competitive since only $2 million is available nationwide in this round, Gonzalez said. Still, Brownsville was able to report in its grant application that funds for the project have already been lined up from other sources — something federal granting agencies like to hear, he said.
“We were able to talk to the right people at USDA, the people who actually manage the grant we applied for,” Gonzalez said. “Hopefully we submitted a strong application. We should know in the next month or so.”
Even if the USDA money doesn’t come through for some reason, it’s not a deal killer: Other money will be found and the Cannery will proceed, he said. In addition to serving as a food hub, the site will serve as a gathering place similar to the renovated Market Square and as a destination for visitors, while upgrading the look of the 6th Street portal to downtown, Gonzalez said.
His April 16 presentation to the city commission included photos of similar projects elsewhere, including Eastern Market in Detroit, Mich., the Milwaukee Public Market in Wisconsin and the hugely popular Magnolia Market in Waco.
“I go to all the markets,” Gonzalez said. “It’s really just kind of a cool place to go and really get to know the local community and eat local food and all that kind of stuff.”
A conceptual revamp of the old cannery was included in the 2015 Mitte Cultural District plan as the “Ringgold Artisan Market,” and the project was the subject of a public design charrette in 2016. Texas Southmost College architecture students held a public unveiling of various design options for the structure in 2017.
“We have a concept, and that was rooted in the students’ work,” Gonzalez said “We took that concept, found partners, then found money, so now we need to take that concept to the designers: What do we really need inside the building? What kind of improvements does it need?”
The USDA architect has already visted the city to conduct a survey of the site, and the city hopes to bid the project by the end of the year, Gonzalez said.
“We’re really waiting for the survey to be done so he can start to do his design work, so he’s working with actual conditions. … By middle to late next year it will start looking good,” he said.