CALEXICO — Las Palmas Swap Meet on Wednesday opened its doors to vendors and the shopping public after being shuttered when COVID-19 prompted restrictions on business operations in mid-March.
While the prolonged closure was a detriment to Las Palmas and its multitude of vendors’ livelihoods, it did allow the swap meet to attend to previously planned modernization efforts.
Those efforts include the ongoing demolition of various structures used as vendor spaces and that allow for the overnight storage of goods. Plans call for those structures to be replaced in the near future.
Additional work has included the recent grading of the four-acre grounds on which many of the vendors’ stalls are located, as well as upgrades to the swap meet’s kitchen and renovations to its two-story offices.
“Obviously (the COVID-19 pandemic) is bad for business, but it’s also a great time to clean,” said Christian Martinez, Las Palmas operations manager. “We were planning to do it anyway, so we took that opportunity.”
Wednesday was considered something of a “soft opening” for the swap meet, since its full roster of employees and vendors has yet to return, and because northbound border traffic – which has historically accounted for a large volume of its patrons – still remains restricted to essential international travelers.
The swap meet is currently operating at 25 percent capacity, in compliance with a county health order and the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
The business’ limited operations will allow it to continue with its modernization efforts without overly disrupting vendors’ business activities, as well as provide alternate space for those displaced by the demolition of the permanent structures that have housed merchants.
Even so, Martinez said about 120 of the site’s typical 400 or more vendors were onsite for opening day, with others lining up for their opportunity to start the process of resuming business.
“I already registered over 100 vendors” on Wednesday, Martinez said.
The modernization currently underway was initially approved years ago, before the 2018 death of Martinez’s grandfather and the business’ patriarch, Raul Estrada.
The parcel of land off of Ollie Avenue where the swap meet is situated is part of a much larger swath of property that Estrada was able to acquire as a result of years of hard work in the agricultural industry, initially as a bracero and later as a labor contractor, Martinez said.
Some of that property, which at one time extended from just north of Cole Road down to the border, has since been sold and developed, while other parcels remain within the family and are planned for development, he said.
As part of its modernization plans, Las Palmas is also looking to establish a space similar to Quartyard in downtown San Diego, where shipping containers have been transformed into eateries and which incorporates a beer garden and dog walk.
Additional planned amenities at Las Palmas call for a dedicated space for patrons’ children to play sports, as well infrastructure to host movie nights, such as a drive-in movie screen.
“A lot of people want it now but it does take time and resources,” Martinez said.
In the near term, patrons should expect to see the construction of a series of standalone walls measuring about 20 square feet that local artists will be allowed to use to adorn with family-friendly artwork.
“Hopefully, by October we can have some of those walls up,” he said.
Newly painted bathrooms, a new public address system and several murals by Mexicali native Etelberto Ortiz, better known as Star 27, will greet patrons and vendors alike as they return to the site.
Martinez said that he started working at Las Palmas as a youngster, manning one of the hot dog concession stands that dot the site and that are operated by management.
The swap meet’s modernization efforts are part of the development Martinez said is planned for additional nearby parcels that remain in the family’s possession.
One parcel that is situated west of the post office is being eyed as the future site for a gas station and fast food restaurant, while a small industrial park has been proposed for another parcel that abuts the nearby railroad tracks.
Martinez acknowledged that the ambitious plans have been brought to the attention of city officials and that they may take time to materialize, yet offered assurance that progress is being made.
“We’ve been here for 55 years, and we plan to be here another 55,” Martinez said. “The torch is being handed over.”