Plans are in the works to create a food hub at 2640 Portland Rd N.E. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Residents in a part of Salem that has limited access to fresh food could soon have new eateries to patronize.

Plans are in the works to create a multicultural food hub at the site of a vacant car dealership on 2640 Portland Rd N.E.

MicroEnterprise Resources Initiatives and Training, a nonprofit that aims to combat poverty by providing training and support for small business owners, moved into the building in February.

The city of Salem is subleasing the property to MERIT with plans to turn it into a gathering space with food trucks or a shipping container retrofitted to house small restaurants next summer.

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The idea has been brewing for a while.

Annie Gorski, the city’s economic development manager, said residents in northeast Salem kept saying they wanted a place to gather for meals and cultural events while supporting small businesses.

“That theme has come up time and time again,” she said.

The city completed a feasibility study in 2017. Gorski said a food hub concept that focused on aggregating local farm products wasn’t in the cards, but a public market and food incubator could be.

“Because we’re seeing there is a lot of need in the neighborhood and citywide for places for small businesses to incubate,” Gorski said.

That need can be seen in other parts of the city, too. In downtown Salem, a food hall housing mini-restaurants plans to open this fall.

Earlier this year, MERIT was awarded a $141,500 state grant to conduct a feasibility study to determine the economic viability of a food hub in northeast Salem.

 “We are in the process of coordinating focus groups of residents and community partners and we really see this building as a regional hub,” said Genevieve Sheridan, MERIT’s executive director.

Gorski said the project is still in early stages, but the plan is to support fledgling businesses in hopes they grow beyond the space.

“The idea is you really want businesses to move through there,” she said. “You are helping them to grow so that eventually they outgrow that food truck.”

Since 2016, Gorski said the city has been looking at what other communities around the country have done involving marketplaces that combine incubator, retail and food hub concepts.

In Portland, they looked at Portland Mercado, which provides affordable retail space to businesses with a focus on Latino culture. There are nine food carts and six indoor businesses onsite.

Gorski said some of the elements of that project might work here in Salem, but it’s difficult to sustain food trucks year-round with the rain.

That’s where the idea of a shipping container came in. Gorski said the containers are easy to install and can be moved if needed.

“When we were doing the research, we saw that was quite successful around the country,” she said.

Sheridan said the Portland Road corridor is the most pronounced food desert in the city. Food deserts are defined by the USDA as low-income communities where more than one third of residents live more than a mile away from a large grocery store.

“There’s very little food available especially considering the number of people that live there,” she said.

The area also has a larger Latino population, 21% of the population there is foreign-born, compared to about 13% citywide, according to U.S. Census data.

Sheridan said her organization works with micro enterprises – those with five or fewer employees. On average the nonprofit serves 100 clients a year, but Sheridan said another 200 to 300 people come in looking for small business development help.

“Most of our clients are immigrants or have family-based businesses and the children are included in the business,” Sheridan said. “We take a holistic approach in including the entire family.”

The project won’t simply be a place to set up shop like other food pods around the city.

“In the background we have all of our personal and business finance training and resources that we can provide to the local residents,” Sheridan said.

She said there are a lot of rural clients that want retail opportunities in Salem. The idea of a pop-up market has come up.

“I believe that this neighborhood can experience a lot of vibrance and prosperity by embracing the culture that is there,” Sheridan said.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250 or [email protected]