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COMMENTARY: Helping communities thrive

In my grocery store in Historic West Las Vegas, we have a board on the wall with a long list of names and numbers. If someone comes in and says, “I can’t afford to feed my family,” I have them take home a hot meal and sign for the cost of food on the board. Sometimes I see that money back. Sometimes I don’t. And that can hurt sometimes, but that’s OK. That’s the kind of business I want to run.

I have owned Mario’s Westside Market for 27 years. But when the pandemic started, my business was hit hard. As one of the only grocery providers in a food desert, we have been on the front lines since the beginning. A lot of good employees left in those early months, and I was left working early and late every day to keep the business running. It was a challenge to make it through that first year. But because of funds from the American Rescue Plan, my business is not only surviving — it is expanding.

Our market is a relatively small store — about 9,200 square feet — that is filled with the sound of ’70s music and the smell of fresh soul food. Like the Vegas neighborhood I grew up in nearby, my business is located in an area with mostly Black and brown residents that has long experienced a shortage of investments and resources. Most customers walk here or take the bus. Without our store, many would have to take two or three buses to access the nearest grocery store.

We provide fresh food in a sea of fast-food chains, and we work hard to take care of our customers. But I have long wanted to expand our services to offer fresh baked goods and many more fruit and vegetable options.

Soon, that dream will become a reality thanks to funds from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The plan has invested $1.9 trillion in communities across the nation to get the country moving again after the economic disruptions of the pandemic.

This includes $131 million for the city of Las Vegas to allocate to businesses, nonprofits and other organizations that have been impacted by the pandemic and can help contribute to the recovery. Because of this federal funding, Las Vegas City Councilman Cedric Crear and County Commissioner William McCurdy were able to help grant Mario’s Westside Market $1 million for expansion.

Soon, we will be moving into the building next to us, which is nearly double our existing space. The $1 million grant, along with additional loans, will help us turn the building into a full supermarket. The new space will have a produce section six times larger than our current one, as well as a bakery that offers fresh bread and other baked goods made twice a day. This is a dream come true for me and an important step forward for the community. These funds are not just an investment in my business; they’re an investment in healthy, nutritious food options for the West Las Vegas community.

Recently, I have had a lot of customers come in to tell me, “Thank you for standing up for our community.” I know that our business’ expansion gives them some hope for the future. And as I see the impact of the American Rescue Plan in Las Vegas, it fills me with hope that our business and our community will come out of this pandemic stronger.

Mario Berlanga Jr. lives in Las Vegas and owns and operates Mario’s Westside Market.

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