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Southeast Asian shops along University Ave. hope 'Little Mekong' will attract visitors

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Anna Courchaine
Anna Courchaine performs to a packed house at Mai Village Vietnamese Restaurant in St. Paul, Minn., on February 25, 2012. The establishment kicked off the Taste of Little Mekong, an event showcasing Asian-owned and operated businesses on University Avenue.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Hoping to mimic the success of Minneapolis' Eat Street and other destination neighborhoods, Southeast Asian businesses along the eastern end of University Avenue in St. Paul kicked off a re-branding campaign this weekend.

They hope a new identity — Little Mekong — will attract visitors to an area that's been dealing with the hassle of light rail construction.

Southeast Asian businesses owners invited more than 100 people to Mai Village Vietnamese restaurant on east University Avenue.

There were speeches and performances including dancing kids in elaborate sparkly dragon costumes, followed by a buffet of tasty fried appetizers. In between, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman hefted a pair of oversized scissors and helped cut a red ribbon tethered to columns on either side of a small stage.

Tran Nhon, a board member of the Asian Economic Development Association, said the largely symbolic ribbon cutting is meant to have a very real economic effect.

"I think [it] will be nicer if we cut the ribbon today, telling the people we're ready," Nhon said.

Dragon dance
Children perform a traditional dragon dance during the Taste of Little Mekong in St. Paul, Minn., on Feb. 25, 2012. The goal of the event was to draw attention to Asian-owned and operated businesses affected by upcoming light rail construction.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The Southeast Asian community on the east end of University Avenue is ready to be known as a branded destination for non-Asians to visit and explore. Businesses along the strip will get new façades that reflect Asian themes. Public art will complete the transformation.

Nhon hopes when the first passengers on the Central Corridor light rail line step out from the Western Avenue stop in 2014, they'll see the surrounding five blocks as one entity.

"The reasons why we chose the name Mekong is because that is a river who flows through several countries in Asia," Nhon said.

The Mekong River and its tributaries fed the cultures of China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam for hundreds of years. In his speech, Mayor Coleman said he hopes the Central Corridor light rail line can play something of the same role for businesses along University Avenue.

"We not only had the Rondo neighborhood, but Rondo was divided into places called Cornmeal Valley and Oatmeal Hill, that really reflected the economic circumstances of the people that were living in those neighborhoods," he said. "To rebrand this neighborhood as Little Mekong, to be able to say that we are the heart and soul and center of the Southeast Asian community in the Twin Cities area, I am very, very proud of that fact."

Va-Megn Thoj, the executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association, said branding will ensure preservation of the Southeast Asian sector amidst the rush of commercial development spurred by light rail. He acknowledges, though, that the name Little Mekong might bring back bad memories of the Vietnam War for some people.

"We embrace that. That's part of the history of our community. So we're not going to deny that it happened," Thoj said. "Little Mekong will provide these lessons."

ANOTHER TRY AT BRANDING

Regardless of the name, branding the area isn't a new idea. In the early 1990s, groups unsuccessfully tried to create an Asian-themed streetscape project. Early in the last decade, plans for an "Asiatown" retail district collapsed. Business owners say the idea will work this time because of light rail.

They're not the only ones banking on that: further west, the St. Anthony Park neighborhood is trying to brand itself as a creative enterprise zone in advance of light rail's arrival.

Chang-mi Dancers
The Chang-mi Dancers perform at Taste of Little Mekong in St. Paul, Minn., on February 25, 2012. The event launched a branding campaign to bring attention to Asian-owned and operated businesses affected by upcoming light rail construction.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

But in Frogtown, residents like Stephen Wilson say they've been left out of the process. Wilson is chair of the District Collaborative, made up of planning councils along the light rail line. He said branding campaigns should be vetted by established governing bodies.

"I would like to see people just follow the process and try to work within the process to get things done rather than develop a movement and more or less have people opposed to it because of the way it was done, not necessarily what was done," Wilson said.

Other Frogtown residents worry branding even a small section with an Asian theme will eclipse other ethnicities in the area, which once housed the largely African-American Rondo neighborhood and has gotten more diverse over time.

The Summit-University Planning Council's Executive Director Irna Landrum wonders what's wrong with sticking with the name Frogtown.

"I'm not immediately convinced it has to be this big cultural branding. People know where Frogtown is. You know there's a lot of natural curiosity for people who don't live in these communities about what these strong community names mean," Landrum said.

Landrum said it makes sense to have a strong identity around each of the light rail stations. But she said Frogtown already has one.