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After a two-year planning effort, a five-block stretch in that neighborhood, from Galtier Street on the east to Mackubin Street on the west, has a new moniker: Little Mekong. The name derives from Southeast Asia’s famed Mekong River, with flowing water replaced by asphalt and a light rail line now under construction.

Ethnicity in the shadow of the Capitol

Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association, stands at University and Western avenues in St. Paul, the heart of the newly designated Little Mekong district. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

The Asian dining area that feeds the state’s workers

Beginning in the 1980s, the strip of University Avenue east of the Capitol became a mainly Asian neighborhood full of restaurants and businesses serving St. Paul’s burgeoning immigrant population.

After a two-year planning effort, a five-block stretch in that neighborhood, from Galtier Street on the east to Mackubin Street on the west, has a new moniker: Little Mekong. The name derives from Southeast Asia’s famed Mekong River, with flowing water replaced by asphalt and a light rail line now under construction.

“A lot of the first Asian businesses in the city started here,” says Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the St. Paul-based Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA), which created the concept and marketing for Little Mekong. “We have around 120 businesses in that section of University, and 70 percent of them are Asian-owned.”

Nancy Homans, the policy director for Mayor Chris Coleman, says the city is a “bystander and cheerleader for the project” but has not directed any money toward it. The effort is important because it brought together businesses, often competing against one another, for the first time to collaborate to make the neighborhood more appealing to visitors, she says.

“There is a sense we need to do a better job of identifying a sense of place” along the light rail line, Homans says. “These folks are leading the charge to define this as a geographic area, and that takes time and commitment. It’s creating a ‘there’ there, and if they can do that, it’s good news for them and for St. Paul.”
Anyone looking for a St. Paul version of a Chinatown-style district with gateway arches or Asian architecture will be disappointed at this point because Little Mekong is a mess. The culprit is light rail construction. Although patrons can get to restaurants and businesses, it requires some attentive driving to know where to turn to access parking lots and avoid earth movers.

Little Mekong is part of a larger initiative, the World Cultural Heritage District (WCHD), that spans Minnehaha to Selby avenues and Snelling Avenue to the Capitol. The idea has been led by Bruce Corrie, the dean of Concordia University’s College of Business and Organizational Leadership, who sees branding the area as an opportunity to cash in on the exploding market for cultural tourism.

The heart of Little Mekong is University and Western avenues, with Frogtown to the north and Summit-University to the south. The most prominent businesses along it are restaurants, Thoj says. To jump-start the campaign for Little Mekong, the AEDA held a tasting tour of local restaurants in February that quickly sold out, drawing more than 100 patrons.

Little Mekong was announced through the tasting event and in a multi-page insert in the St. Paul Pioneer Press earlier this year. The branding campaign will continue with more tasting events and other celebrations to highlight the avenue.

Branding the neighborhood started a couple of years ago when AEDA received $75,000 in grants from the McKnight, Bigelow and St. Paul foundations. Part of the initiative came as a result of a desire by merchants for a marketing push to keep people coming to University Avenue during light rail construction, Thoj noted.

Several ethnic and communal neighborhood branding efforts were studied by the AEDA, such as District Del Sol on the city’s West Side, Eat Street in Minneapolis and Chinatown in Los Angeles. The AEDA learned a few simple lessons: Hold events to draw in new patrons, use social media, and offer coupons and deals.

Little Mekong is in a section of University that is well-known to St. Paul’s Asian community but less so to people in the suburbs and Minneapolis, he says. Even state workers may not be familiar with Little Mekong, which will be a brief transit ride away once light rail opens.

As it stands, Mai Village is well known to the Capitol community, says Thoj, but many of the restaurants in Little Mekong have no cachet with state workers. He hopes brochures, menu drops at offices and delivery to state buildings will open up more business for lesser known restaurants.

“A lot of people working at the Capitol come here for lunch, but we want more of them to come more often and at different times of the day,” he says. “They tend to go to only a couple of restaurants on University.”

Old recipes, new ideas

The issue of ethnicity did come up before the creation of Little Mekong. Not all of the businesses are Asian owned, but many serve a largely Asian audience, Thoj says. The AEDA’s research showed that non-ethnic restaurants and businesses get a boost, too, from branding efforts. District Del Sol promotes itself as a Latino neighborhood, and the Arts District in Northeast Minneapolis plays up its creativity.

In both cases, businesses outside of the brand’s message end up with more customers who come for one thing — food or the arts — and end up patronizing other businesses.

The assumption is that the same strategy should work for Little Mekong. “We’re not just focused on Asian businesses; we’re focused on everybody, and everyone will benefit with greater foot traffic,” Thoj says. “By highlighting the entire area, Asian and non-Asian businesses will be impacted by the benefits of the program.”

Other University Avenue branding efforts

In part, Little Mekong came out of conversations with the members of WCHD, which at this point is still more concept than reality. The WCHD has gained traction, however, and has been incorporated into Central Corridor Development Strategy. It is funded with grants from the Otto Bremer Foundation, the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and Twin Cities LISC.

Corrie says the effort, led by the non-profit CulturalBrokers Foundation in St. Paul, is creating a website and map of ethnic businesses. Several cities, among them Philadelphia and Phoenix, have attracted conventions and meetings by promoting ethnic neighborhoods, and the Twin Cities could do the same, he says.

Although the project arose out of concern over light rail’s impact on University and surrounding neighborhoods, Corrie says the effort will continue long after the transit line is completed. He hopes to extend it eventually to Lake Street in Minneapolis, which has many Latino and African businesses and restaurants.

The organization is working on creating a brand for promoting African-American businesses on Selby Avenue and another for African businesses on or around University. “This is about helping create a framework that allows ideas to flourish,” Corrie says. “We’re an umbrella organization where people can bring their ideas.”

Still, he concedes, the neighborhoods rich in certain ethnicities are a long way from becoming anything like the Chinatowns in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other big cities. The hope is to simply identify their locations and work on raising their profiles and connecting them via maps and a WCHD website.

Frogtown Neighborhood Association director Tait A. Danielson Castillo says the WCHD has had difficulty in capturing support from the business community. “They don’t feel it represents them, and they don’t feel a connection to it,” he says.

The strength in Little Mekong’s approach was the AEDA’s ability to get business owners on board before launching the idea of a branded neighborhood district, he says. “It has turned into a great project because they got a lot of business support,” he says.

Lisa Tabor, who runs CulturalBrokers, says the WCHD is enlisting members to win business support for the concept. “In the first stage we’ve trying to educate people about all these cultural assets in the community,” she says. “This is an opportunity to build out on that and capitalize on that.”

The WCHD planned to launch a voucher program on May 6 at the Great River Gathering at the St. Paul River Centre. It’s the same sort of program Little Mekong already has under way, offering coupons for several members’ restaurants.
Tabor and Thoj see social media as a way to bring more people into ethnic communities. That will be a lot easier, both concede, when the Central Corridor light rail line is complete and cars and commuters can move more freely on and around University Avenue.

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