The city hired the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation to lead a $20 million redevelopment of El Barrio’s La Marqueta in 2003, but three years later Tita Rivera, 80, is still selling her lollipops, decorative ribbon and chewing tobacco in a nearly vacant building — the current La Marqueta.

“I hope I’ll live to see it,” said Rivera, as she unraveled a rope of tobacco imported from Puerto Rico for one of her few regular customers. “If I sit down, I think I’ll whittle away and die. I’ll work until I can no more. I know these things take time.”

Vendors, residents, community leaders and politicians agree that renovating what is currently the least patronized municipal market in the city would revitalize East Harlem. Community leaders are desperate to create an economic and cultural draw in a community district that, according to a Columbia University study, experiences an 81 percent loss of potential spending dollars to other neighborhoods each year. Despite such universal support, developers are struggling, as they have for 25 years, to bring the project to fruition. This month the Business Capital Corporation said it is at least $5 million short and 18 months behind schedule. One supporter, Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, had to at least temporarily pull his $1 million pledge out of the project.

“At the time we needed to sign the paperwork they just were not ready,” Deputy Borough President Rose Pierre-Louis said. “But obviously the borough president thinks that it is a really exciting project, not just exciting for the East Harlem community but Manhattan as a whole.”

A spokeswoman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation, who oversees the project for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and has pulled developers off the project in the past, would not comment on whether the city is disappointed by the project’s delay.

“We’re working very closely with them to move the project forward,” said spokeswoman Janel Patterson. “We’re committed to working with them.”

La Marqueta began in 1932 when Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia created the market under the Metro North viaduct along Park Avenue, to get vendors off the streets and paying taxes. The market, once filled with Caribbean vegetables and clucking roosters, was a bustling center of the Puerto Rican community for 50 years. It began suffering in the late 1970s with the advent of supermarkets, increased crime and the city’s fiscal crisis. Since then, there have been several plans to develop, renovate or change the space, all of which failed except a structural facelift in 1996.

The current planners believe that East Harlem’s increased safety, luxury housing boom and a national interest in organic food make this the most opportune time to revitalize the market in the 30 years since its decline.

“The economy, the changes in the neighborhood, the new housing construction certainly makes it a better time than ever,” said Nelson Garcia, executive director of the Business Capital Corporation. “It’s not that it’s going to happen. It is happening.” Garcia’s group is a nine year-old nonprofit that supports the neighborhood’s entrepreneurs and small businesses with financial and technical assistance. La Marqueta is its biggest project yet.

Under the current plan, La Marqueta — renamed Marqueta Internacional — will include three glass-enclosed, environmentally “green” buildings that include 55,000 square feet of space. The largest, center building, will stretch across three blocks from 112th to 115th Street and will house a market featuring fresh produce, meat, fish and prepared foods from the Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, African-American, Italian and other ethnic groups in East Harlem. Two block-long buildings on either side of the market will contain a mix of restaurants and cultural and health programming space. If this phase is successful, the group plans to expand up to 119th Street to provide 30,000 square feet more of space.

So far, the Business Capital Corporation has completed the architectural plans, environmental impact study and traffic report, compiled an undisclosed list of interested tenants and investors and fundraised, the most daunting task.

Sally Hernandez-Pinero, former deputy mayor under David N. Dinkins, who joined the Business Capital Corporation three months ago, and Garcia expect the project will cost $20 million, $15 million of which they have already raised or been promised. They say this money includes $1 million from City Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito, $4.1 million from the Upper Manhattan Redevelopment Zone and $4 million in new market tax credits. The federal Office of Community Services and the Ford Foundation have donated $540,000 and $200,000, respectively.

Garcia and Hernandez-Pinero talk about inviting an “anchor” corporation like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods Market to the site, but they are afraid this would price out local vendors and dilute the market’s cultural roots.

“If Fresh Direct said they would move in, this would start tomorrow,” said Hernandez-Pinero.

“We want to give the chance to own businesses to local people in East Harlem. So we need not too big a name, not too small a name,” Garcia said. “But our trouble is you’re not going to get a guy with his tomatoes to commit two years in advance.”

While East Harlem has one of the largest Latino populations in the city, according to Community Board 11’s annual report, just 3 percent of businesses are Latino-owned.

Garcia said he understands that investors are wary of a project more focused on community than pure profit, and that there was a “transition” when the previous executive director resigned for personal reasons in March.

“Everyone wants to make sure the financial plan is stable and run the numbers again and again,” Garcia said. “We’re looking to reassure people that the project has not died. We fully plan to continue. Everyone is on board.”

Four blocks away from the Business Capital Corporation’s office on First Avenue, the handful of stalwarts left at La Marqueta say they are unsure when or if the renovation will happen. While the thousands of weekly visitors that used to push their way inside the fenced-in market no longer come, vendors continue to sell hard-to-find-products to a couple dozen daily customers as trains rumble overhead.

On one recent weekday afternoon, Yvonne Richards, 43, brought her daughter to buy cod fish for a traditional Antiguan dish she planned to make with onions, tomatoes, green peppers and dumplings. Lucia Rueda, 73, made her weekly stop for fish, too. And Melvin Cespedes, 30, came from the Bronx to buy Tita Rivera’s Puerto Rican tobacco that his mother and grandmother have been chewing since before he was born. He and Rivera lamented over the poor quality of plantains and avocados in grocery stores.

Bernard Lifschultz, 87, self-proclaimed “elder statesman” of La Marqueta, has been doling out fish and pig snout at La Marqueta for 60 years. Like Rivera, he has no plans for retirement and does not know whether he should make repairs to his stand when no one has told him when it will be knocked down.

“I’ve seen these projects come and go, but nothing happens. They say “We’re going to do this and then everything goes kaput,” Lifschultz said. “But if it happens I intend to stay here for as long as I can.”

Hernandez-Pinero, who watched the funding for La Marqueta fall from $20 million to $1.4 million between the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations, said she would not have taken it on if she did not believe in it.

“This project has seen different versions of itself and it hasn’t happened so many times. There is some disbelief,” Hernandez-Pinero said. “It has taken a little longer than everyone has hoped but we’re doing it. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky plan.”

-Dorian Block