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Cultural Districts Benefit Foodservice Businesses

Restaurants, coffee shops, markets and other food-centric businesses in parts of St. Paul could benefit in 2019 from a $1.8 million budget initiative touted by Mayor Melvin Carter and city planning and economic development staff. Stepped up efforts to promote seven cultural districts could bring more customers through the doors for such businesses.

The cultural districts are located in the Midway, Rondo, Frogtown, North End, East Side, West Side and the Shepard-Davern area of Highland. Some, such as Frogtown’s Little Mekong and the West Side’s District del Sol, are more established than others. The intent is to both promote the districts as a good place to eat and shop, and to have arts groups from the areas be able to stage performances downtown.

Bruce Corrie, who leads the city’s Planning and Economic Development Department under Carter, has extensively studied and promoted cultural districts in his past work at Concordia University. He has researched the possibilities for several neighborhoods. “These districts would have great benefits for the businesses in them, and for the city as a whole,” he said.

Corrie sees St. Paul’s potential efforts, focused on various cultural groups, as creating areas akin to San Francisco’s Chinatown or New York City’s Koreatown and Little Italy. The districts not only benefit immigrant entrepreneurs, they also could provide destinations for tourists as well as for locals looking for a new experience.

The idea is nothing new, but with additional city funding, Corrie is pleased to see the idea take off. He had hoped there would be a stronger emphasis on cultural districts as destinations during the planning for Green Line light rail more than a decade ago. 

Some districts would focus on one cultural group while others could be multi-cultural, said Corrie.

Focusing on Little Africa

Gene Gelgelu is president of African Economic Development Solutions, a nonprofit focused on African entrepreneurs. Efforts include helping businesses in the Little Africa district on Snelling Avenue in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, including restaurants and coffee shops, as well as retail storefronts and a larger commercial building developed into vendor stalls.

Districts like Little Africa add to the city’s vibrancy and help attract visitors, Gelgelu said. Dining out and trying a new cuisine is an important part of that.

 “People like to try a new restaurant and visit someplace new, and this kind of city assistance helps us promote that,” Gelgelu said. Visiting a restaurant can then lead to visiting nearby shops or taking in a performance.

Other district and neighborhood leaders note that they have many success stories to their credit already and that additional city assistance would help them help more entrepreneurs. They point out that restaurants and coffee shops often struggle with complex city regulations, and the fact that St. Paul food businesses have to work with both the city and state Department of Health staff before they can open.

Frogtown Success Story

One success story is from Frogtown. The Little Mekong district near University and Western avenues is the location of popular “night markets.”

The night markets have been a huge draw for visitors wanting to try various cuisines. Food trucks and pop-up stands have led to brick-and-mortar success.

Corrie said these endeavors can help immigrant business owners succeed and grow. He said successful businesses have already been spawned by the existing districts.

One of those success stories is Soktevy “Tevy” Phann. Her family’s business, Spinning Wylde, is now part of the Keg & Case Market at the old Schmidt Brewery.

Phann wanted to share her Cambodian culture. She considered opening a restaurant but was deterred by the high startup costs and the challenges of that business.

Instead she worked with the Asian Economic Development Association, which assists Asian business. AEDA was also instrumental in the startup of the night markets and Little Mekong district.

Phann began her business at the Little Mekong Night Market, using an old cotton candy machine. The imaginatively flavored cotton candies drew crowds and rave reviews. The business draws on her son Wylde’s name and the spinning machine used to make cotton candy. The business can produce 50 different flavors of cotton candy.

The success prompted the young entrepreneur to expand to other festivals, and to the food hall at Keg & Case. She drew on AEDA’s various business financial education workshops and technical assistance, had a pop-up stand at Mall of American and was part of the recent Super Bowl in Minneapolis. 

Corrie’s vision for cultural districts has won a positive response from the hospitality community, district leaders and from the city’s planning commission. But in a recent discussion with Corrie, planning commission members said the districts need ongoing city support to survive and thrive. 

Some of the older districts need a refresh, said Planning Commissioner Ann DeJoy. Now working on the city’s east side, DeJoy was part of the effort several years ago to develop District del Sol on the city’s west side. That commercial district, in a historic Chicano-Latino neighborhood, has about a dozen restaurants, markets and food-related businesses.

District del Sol’s establishment not only included business assistance, marketing and promotions efforts, it also included public art and amenities to make the neighborhood more welcoming. Now many of those add-ons need updating, said DeJoy. She said if the city wishes to support cultural districts, it needs to be ready to sustain them and continue to offer support. 

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