Reviving the Mercado Central

March 5, 2004

TO foreigners, the heavy smell of ripe fruit in the air and the eye candy in all directions is draw enough to the Mercado Central in San José. But to vendors, the market is more than just a tourist attraction. It is a livelihood, and if improvements are not made soon, government agriculture officials worry the Mercado Central could become just another non-existent geographical reference for giving Tico directions.

The Ministry of Agriculture’s Integral Agricultural and Livestock Marketing Program (PIMA) last month announced the results of a study suggesting the country’s 34 municipal central markets are losing the battle against supermarket chains on a variety of fronts.

“THE markets have lost in all senses,” said PIMA director Jorge Cruz. “They have lost clientele. They have lost in infrastructure. They have lost in quality. And they are becoming less competitive in prices.”

The study cites problems with security, cleanliness, waste disposal, street vendors, congestion, parking and lack of loading docks as reasons for the decline in popularity of the mercados.

PIMA, which provides government support to small agribusiness throughout the country, is initiating a plan to improve the markets not only physically, but also in terms of service and security.

By making dramatic infrastructure improvements in everything from lighting to parking, as well as training vendors in presentation, PIMA hopes to avoid the displacement of thousands of jobs and the closure of thousands of family-owned businesses.

“We still have sufficient time to stop what has happened in some other countries in Latin America and Europe, where much of the small economy and the small businesses have been totally lost,” Cruz said.

ALTHOUGH most vendors at the Mercado Central do not feel business has decreased in recent years, many say they are uncertain about the future.

“The clients are very consistent, but most of them are age 50 and older, and for this reason we are worried,” said Francisco Jiménez, who manages a spice stall owned by his family. “Ask anyone who is 15 to 20 years old and they have never even been to the market.”

Jiménez’s spice business pays about ¢30,000 ($71) a month in rent for its space at the Mercado Central. For more than two years, about ¢5,000 ($12) of this rent has been earmarked for improvements to the market – according to the monthly bill.

However, according to tenants at the Mercado, no improvements have materialized. “They’ve been talking about improving things for years, but they have done nothing,” said Hernán Gómez, who pays ¢28,000 ($66) per month for the fruit stand his father owns.

A patchwork roof, crumbling walls, a floor more uneven than the sidewalks outside, and electrical and plumbing systems that are antiquated at best – the list of needs at the Mercado Central is long.

Markets around the country are no better, Cruz said.

More than one-third of the country’s markets were built before 1959. Serious deficiencies in infrastructure were reported in 90% of the markets during a November poll of administrators.

Part of the problem is administration.

Although almost all of the markets fall under the jurisdiction of the area municipalities, 76% of mayors say their municipal governments do not have programs or strategies for the markets.

In most cases, an administrator charged with a multitude of tasks runs the market, Cruz said.

Along with the operational tasks of maintenance, security, trash collection and inspections, each market’s administrator is responsible for accounting, rent collection, promotion, complaints and opening and closing the market. Less than half of the administrators have offices with computers to do their jobs.

Rents barely cover the minimum expenses of the markets, Cruz added.

DESPITE these challenges, and the opening of myriad new supermarkets in the last decade, municipal markets are still in the competition for customers.

Markets are the third most popular place to buy fruits and vegetables, as well as fresh meat, according to a PIMA poll.

Various people shopping at the Mercado Central earlier this week told The Tico Times they shop there for the price and the quality, particularly of meat and seafood.

An informal comparison by The Tico Times reveals the price of fruits and vegetables at the Mercado is slightly less than Más x Menos supermarket.

Potatoes were ¢589 ($1.39) per kilogram at Más x Menos and ¢420 ($1) at the Mercado; carrots were ¢190 ($0.45) per kilogram at Más x Menos and ¢150 ($0.36) at the Mercado; tomatoes were ¢769 ($1.82) per kilogram at Más x Menos and ¢540 ($1.28) at the Mercado.

A comparison of meat and fish shows a more dramatic price difference.

Ground beef was ¢1,691 ($4) per kilogram at Más x Menos and ¢1,395 ($3.30) at the Mercado; corvina was ¢3,950 ($9.36) per kilogram at Más x Menos and ¢3,500 ($8.29) at the Mercado; bone-in chicken breast was ¢1,020 ($2.42) per kilogram at Más x Menos and ¢850 ($2) at the Mercado.

BEYOND price, shoppers reported they are attracted to the diversity of the mercados and the intangible concept of tradition.

Chessboards, cheese, notebooks, nuts, figs and grapefruits in syrup, loose spices, leather goods, flowers, fresh-roasted coffee, mango honey, caramel topping – there is little that cannot be found at the markets.

“My father used to bring me to the market as a young boy for ice cream,” said Jiménez, who is 29 years old and expecting a child, whom he plans to bring to the market. “We got everything here. He taught me how to pick out meat.”

Cruz said tradition was an important aspect of the mercados.

“Municipal Markets in the 1970s and 1980s were a place where families could come and shop with complete confidence, a place where they could find their neighbors and converse, but at the same time do their shopping,” Cruz said.

“Furthermore, there was a very familiar relationship between the man who sold the fruits or meat and the woman who came to buy. Supermarkets have taken away that personalization.”

TRADITION alone, however, is not going to keep people coming to the markets, Cruz said. PIMA plans to follow a development plan that has met with success in Spain in the last decade.

PIMA will help municipal markets attract new customers by facilitating loans for infrastructure improvements and offering training programs to vendors to improve presentation of products.

Some markets may also diversify into selling arts and crafts, a plan that has already attracted tourists to some markets on the Pacific coast.

PIMA plans to hold a National Conference on Municipal Markets in about six months to discuss these and other strategies.


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