Rockwood Market Hall celebrates flavors of community
When Gaila Lusby was 9 years old, she would play "pretend kitchen" with her cousins.
They would use a knee-high board as their counter, take orders on scraps of paper and whip up their delicious meals on a cutting board.
"It was a passion of mine," she said with a laugh.
Now Lusby is one of the many small businesses owners who have found a home in a space within the heart of Rockwood that celebrates talented chefs, burgeoning small businesses and the wide array of diverse cuisines that can be found across East Multnomah County.
After more than two decades of planning, the Downtown Rockwood Market Hall had its grand opening Friday and Saturday, May 6-7. The 39,000-square-foot indoor marketplace is filled with local, fresh and ethnic foods alongside handmade, artisanal goods. There are micro-restaurants and micro-retail stores, groceries, a commissary kitchen for rent with cold storage and office space.
But what makes the Market Hall special are the folks like Lusby who are finally fulfilling their entrepreneurship dreams within its walls.
There is Tralice Lewis, who creates custom hats for people experiencing medical hair loss or dealing with self-esteem concerns. The name of her business, Callie's Custom Hat Wigs, is in honor of her mother, Callie, who was a hospice nurse and inspiration.
"If I can bring a little peace and make you feel beautiful and self-confident, that's what (this place) is," Lewis said. "I want to give back to the Gresham community and have that connection."
For Mary Denise Lincoln, owner of Hank's Place Southern Cuisine, the best way to somebody's soul is through food.
"It puts a smile on your face — that is what I want to bring," she said. "We're talking about crowder peas, smothered pork chops, red beans and rice, sweet potato pie."
Ambrosia Johnson, the owner of The Lamb Boutique, which has clothing, accessories, gift baskets and more, has loved connecting with the community.
"It feels great to have this whole place finally be open," she said with a smile. "The best part is all the people just saying hi."
And there is Lusby and Momma G's Soup, which has a menu filled with rich soups, mouth-watering bread and desserts.
"It is humbling to finally be open and serving the community," she said.
Gresham residents have been waiting on the Market Hall, and its promise of Filipino huli-huli chicken, Somalian sambuusas, decadent cupcakes, garlic naan and so much more for decades.
Downtown Rockwood has long been touted as the city's way to bring new construction and needed services into the oft-overlooked neighborhood. The Catalyst Site, located between Southeast Stark Street, Southeast 185th Avenue and East Burnside Street, is a central square with a public plaza and play structures for kids, an innovation hub with services for locals, retail stores, apartments and the Market Hall.
"It's about creating connections," said Emily Bower, executive director of the Gresham Redevelopment Commission. "This project has created the opportunity for our community and local businesses to build shared prosperity for our growing, diverse neighborhood."
"This is what public-private investment has been able to do for Rockwood," she added.
The 5.5-acre plot of land was initially purchased by the Gresham Redevelopment Commission in 2005 with funds from the city's urban renewal district. Gresham leadership then spent three years, from 2014 to 2016, soliciting ideas and feedback from resident about what was then known as Rockwood Rising.
The project finally broke ground in the summer of 2020, and is being completed in phases. That marked a shift from planning to actually seeing the project come to fruition, and after some pandemic-related delays, the Market Hall is the latest step.
Now local developer RKm Development manages and runs Downtown Rockwood, including the Market Hall, with support from the Gresham Redevelopment Commission.
The Market Hall is bright and spacious, with warm wood and a high ceiling that lets in plenty of natural light.
There is lots of parking surrounding the building, 18535 S.E. Stark St., and a nearby MAX Blue Line stop. Outside is a large plaza perfect for kids to play in, a children's splash pad and a playground with AstroTurf.
On Sundays the building hosts The People's Market at Rockwood, which has a focus on BIPOC and culturally-specific produce, crafts and food. There has been talk of concerts, movie nights, community festivals, pop-up events and more. There are still some businesses moving into their new locations, and the grocery store is still a few weeks from opening.
But the best part for the tenants is being surrounded by a passionate cohort, and sharing their products.
Eventually Lusby moved on from her pretend kitchen. She would spent endless hours giggling and cooking alongside her mom, who was a major inspiration for Momma G's. Her mother had an incredible African peanut soup recipe, which she would make every year the day after Thanksgiving. After she passed in 2008 from cancer, her cousin messaged Lusby: "You know you are in charge of the recipe now."
Lusby found her mother's recipe, and it eventually became the most popular item on her menu.
"It is inspiring to finally be open and share my mother's recipe," Lusby said. "I am showing my kids they should always follow their dreams."
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