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Published Sunday, May 28, 2000

Asian shops urge continued effort to build retail district

Lourdes Medrano Leslie / Star Tribune

It's early afternoon, and Somaly Vong is busy cleaning a glass case that soon will display imported gold jewelry and other Asian treasures in what used to be an empty, run-down building on St. Paul's University Avenue.

The Cambodian refugee blazed a trail for other Southeast Asian entrepreneurs in the 1980s, when she bought the blighted property and transformed it into a thriving minimall. The jewelry store will be her newest tenant and soon will move into a coveted open space.

University Av. reflections
On University Avenue, the offices of the Asian American Press are reflected in the windows of an Asian bookstore in International Plaza.

Since Vong and a few other Vietnam War refugees first set up shop in a neighborhood burdened by boarded-up buildings, porn shops and drug dealing, about 140 businesses owned by Southeast Asians have blossomed along a 2-mile stretch of the thoroughfare.

In the shadow of the State Capitol, the eastern end of University Avenue is experiencing a dramatic reversal of fortunes. "When I first came here, it was pretty hard to run a business on University," Vong, 40, said of the first grocery store she opened on the avenue in 1981. "Now business is good, getting better."

Business owners and community leaders long have talked about turning the area into an Asian village that would appeal to a broader customer base, but they complain that City Hall, until recently, has been neglectful.

They say the city has done little to promote the area, which despite the progress still suffers from a negative image. No visible designation accentuates the ethnic enclave to make it more attractive to passing motorists.

But some business owners and local activists are hoping a proposal to build a so-called Pan-Asian Urban Village on the southeast corner of Dale St. and University Av. will mean good things for existing Southeast Asian businesses.

The estimated $40 million proposal, a joint project of the city and three community organizations, calls for turning 8 acres on the site of the Unidale Mall, a small shopping center, into offices, shops, housing for elderly Asians, and a cultural center.

Construction would begin in the summer of 2002, in an area where a cluster of more than two dozen Asian restaurants and grocery stores predominates.

Renewed vitality

Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian and other Southeast Asian businesses dot the avenue along a 17-block stretch between Lexington Parkway on the west and Marion Street on the east.

Breathing new life into what residents say was the epitome of urban decay are restaurants and grocery stores; chiropractic and dental clinics; clothing, jewelry and gift shops; bakeries, tailor shops, financial services firms and insurance companies; travel agencies and hair salons, and a slew of video stores.

Most of the businesses squeezed in between car shops and fast-food restaurants are family enterprises that took advantage of cheap, abandoned property in the neighborhood where many Southeast Asians settled after the Vietnam War.

Like many of the other entrepreneurs along the avenue, Vong ran her business while holding down a manufacturing job. The personable woman said she and her family eventually saved enough money to buy a dilapidated building at 315 W. University Av. that in 1985 became a minimall -- one of three on the avenue. Vong's mall is the smallest and includes a grocery store, a deli and a beauty shop.

The renaissance of University has paralleled the steady growth of Minnesota's Southeast Asian population, which is estimated at about 100,000 and is heavily concentrated in St. Paul.

"This is a good place to be," said Yuepheng Xiong, who with his wife, Shoua, runs Hmong Arts, Books & Crafts at 298 W. University Av. "People keep coming here and asking me if any property's for sale, and I usually say no."

The demand for retail space has driven up property values along and around University. Xiong, who had leased space for his bookstore for five years, said he moved into a building last year that he bought for $185,000 -- $16,000 more than it was selling for in 1998. Xiong said he spent another $60,000 to remodel the building so the family could work downstairs and live upstairs.

At times it's difficult to eke out a living selling Asian history books, children's folk tales and elaborate Hmong needlework, Xiong said. But the family has done well enough over the years to want to keep the business going.

Xiong, 37, said he has no plans to leave the avenue. Neither does Ket Lim, a 32-year-old Cambodian who a few months ago purchased International Plaza at 422 W. University Av. The minimall, with about a dozen tenants, belonged to Kim Long, who opened his first restaurant on University Avenue in 1976.

"It was a good deal for me," said Lim, who runs a video store in the minimall, where young Asians gather to drink French coffee, get a haircut and buy CDs of karaoke music. "The tenants are good; they all pay their rent on time."

Lim, who stocks Cambodian and Vietnamese videos, said Southeast Asian customers keep his mall alive. But as a former California resident familiar with ethnic destinations such as Little Saigon, Orange County's landmark of Vietnamese culture, Lim said he knows the value of catering to a wider audience.

"It would be nice to have an Asian town here," Lim said. "Let's bring people from all over the Twin Cities, even other countries, to see this area and share our culture with them."

City assistance

Some local activists and business owners say the Southeast Asian business strip hasn't reached its peak because City Hall has paid little attention to it, leaving entrepreneurs who are largely unfamiliar with the American system to survive on their own.

"We know the city's busy and they haven't had time for us," said May Yang, who has owned and operated May's American-Oriental Market at 422 W. University Av. for a decade.

Kou Vang, a commercial banking officer who often deals with the Southeast Asian business owners, was more blunt.

"There's never been a concerted city effort to reach out to the east end of the avenue," he said. "It was the Asian community who has taken this neighborhood out of the trash . . . We went down to the city, paid the back taxes on vacant property and revitalized the area."

Vang said he was hopeful that the Pan-Asian project would be the first step to improving that section of University, but a city planner's reported negative comment about the area at a recent meeting prompted Vang and other local activists to question City Hall's commitment.

"For a city staffer to say it's [the eastern end of University] not a priority because only the Hmong shop there -- it belittles everything we've done on this avenue," said Vang, who along with others fired off a letter to Mayor Norm Coleman demanding an explanation.

In a recent interview, Coleman said the city staffer has denied making a derogatory comment, but the mayor said he plans to meet with Vang and others on Tuesday to discuss the matter.

"Whether it was made or not, you've got to make clear that if there's a perception of that, it must be dealt with," Coleman said. "Perception can be as terrible as the reality."

Coleman responded to criticism that the city hasn't done enough to promote the Southeast Asian strip by highlighting efforts over the years to clean up the once-notorious area.

"We've done our bit to set the stage for a great environment where we now see the growth and the opportunity," he said. "So I think it's a model of transforming a neighborhood, and now we're at the stage we can accommodate this broader global village."

The mayor was alluding to hopes of turning the Dale-University intersection into a multicultural business hub that would serve as a gateway into the Frogtown and Aurora-St. Anthony neighborhoods.

In addition to the Pan-Asian project, the Penumbra Theatre and a mix of developments are interested in making their homes there.

"But we're not going to do it all," Coleman said. "In order to make this happen, the Hmong community's going to have to step up to the plate. If the vision is that government should wave a magic wand and simply create a village -- that's not a realistic vision."

Business leaders who have been working for years to change the face of University Avenue say they're glad that the city now appears poised to work more closely with the Southeast Asian community.

"We're doing fine, but we'd like to get people here from outside the neighborhood," said grocer Yang. "For that we need help from the city; we hope that they will give us direction on what we want to become."