Thursday, April 21, 2005

How Immigrants Transformed University Avenue, 1981-2005

The Transformation of University Avenue by Immigrant Entrepreneurs from 1981-2005: A Report*

Bruce P. Corrie, PhD, Grant Meyer, Jenna Fields, Sherri Volkert, Xieng Thor, Amber Suttle, Watchee Zogaa, Chee Lor, Xue Vue, James Holmes, Shayne McMahon, Damien Dukek, Derek Coleman, Dylan McAlpine, Cesar Perez, Frank Hanzlik, Bryan Bach, Dave Furlong and Eric Utoft.

University Avenue in Saint Paul from Lexington Parkway to Rice Street illustrates the vibrant energy that immigrants bring to Minnesota. Asian American entrepreneurs from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Korea, and the Philippines have taken over dilapidated buildings and transformed them into profitable enterprises. Today the avenue is poised to be transformed into a thriving commercial corridor.

In 1997, David Kaplan documented the growth in the avenue in an article published in the journal Economic Geography. Integrating data from various sources he documented the growth and development of Asian owned businesses in a 6 block stretch from Dale to Farrington from 1981 to 1991. The growth in the avenue paralleled the arrival of Southeast Asian refugees to Minnesota and Saint Paul. In 1999, Saint Paul Pioneer Press reporter Brian Bonner did an extensive and detailed map of businesses on 17 blocks on University Avenue.

Undergraduate students at the Department of Business at Concordia University under the direction of Dr. Bruce Corrie decided to update the above reports of the avenue and provide a contemporary perspective on the 6 block stretch from Dale to Farrington. The advantage of focusing on just the 6 block stretch on the avenue was the presence of comparable data going back to 1981 that could illustrate the dynamic energy on the avenue.

Students visited every store on the 6 block stretch of the avenue to verify if the business was Asian owned and whether the building was also owned by an Asian. The experience of Bonner in 1999 still holds true – business owners on the avenue are still wary about talking to strangers, but when a bond of trust is established they have been very open in providing information.

In 1981, the Kaplan study stated, that there was only one Asian owned business on the 6 block stretch on the Avenue. In 1991, Kaplan estimated the number to be 22. In 10 years the avenue was beginning to diversify and various kinds of Asian owned businesses emerged from restaurants and grocery stores to companies providing financial services.

In 1999, the Pioneer Press report documented 59 Asian owned businesses in the 6 block stretch of the avenue. The diversification noted in the Kaplan study had deepened, with a variety of stores from music to video stores to the Asian American Press and Hmong Times. Asian owned businesses were now spread all across the 6 block stretch from the 2 block core from Western to Macubin in the 1991 Kaplan study.

The Concordia University study of 2005 estimates the number of Asian owned businesses on the 6 block stretch to be around 61.

The following are some trends observed in the survey that is also illustrated in the accompanying illustration of business on the avenue.

  • Since 1981 the overall number of businesses has grown on the avenue from 46 in 1981 to 91 in 2005 – around 100 percent.
  • The number of Asian owned businesses increased from 1 in 1981 to 61 in 2005- a 6000 percent increase.
  • Asian businesses grew from 2 percent of all businesses on the six block stretch of the avenue in 1981 to 39 percent in 1991 to 67 percent in 2005.
  • From one Asian business on one block of the avenue in 1981 to complete blocks of the avenue filled with Asian businesses.
  • There appears to be a lot of churning of businesses in the very small category for various reasons and as entrepreneurs focus on emerging business opportunities such as the housing market boom or the need for home health for Asian elders. A recent report in the Hmong Times referred to the impact of the nearby flea market as a cause of the decline of some Hmong businesses on the avenue. Businesses with lower overhead costs located at the flea market gained a competitive edge over businesses on the avenue. It also presents two models at work in the ethnic economy: the stand alone store versus various forms of mini-malls/flea markets that can be found not only in the Asian community but also among other immigrant groups such as the Somali and Latino communities.
  • A number of core strong businesses have expanded, through renovation or building of new structures. Take the popular Mai Village restaurant for example – they built a beautiful multimillion dollar restaurant with an authentic Vietnamese tradition by the side of their old rental property. Asian American Press is another example – the owner expanded across the avenue to the present location and made significant improvement on the building. In many parts of the avenue we can find new additions on top of the old structures being rented out to start-up businesses.
  • The owner of Mai Village provides an example of another dimension of the many contributions immigrants make to Minnesota. He plans to establish on the floor above the restaurant a museum of traditional Vietnamese culture. Through this museum he hopes to share with Minnesotans the rich cultural heritage of Vietnam going back thousands of years.
  • Another trend is for entrepreneurs to buy up other properties and expand outside the avenue. One business owner reported owning 5 new businesses, two on the site, and two on other parts of the avenue and one in a nearby suburb. Each of these businesses had a different focus: A restaurant, jewelry shop, pharmacy and a hotel.
  • What also is happening over the years has been the expansion of Asian owned businesses from the Western-Macubin blocks to a wide stretch of University Avenue from Dunlap to Rice Street. The 1999 Pioneer Press study listed over 100 Asian owned businesses on a 17 block stretch of the avenue.
  • Most of the businesses still focus on the ethnic market with a few businesses aiming for a blend between the ethnic and mainstream markets. Some restaurants had an ethnic flavor but catered mainly to a mainstream clientele.
  • Among the 61 Asian businesses identified in the avenue, there was considerable diversity: 3 jewelry shops; 11 food establishments; 5 grocery/supermarkets; 7 financial services companies; one liquor store; 12 retail/clothing stores; 1 automobile repair shop; 6 video stores; 3 health care establishments. Many of the buildings were Asian owned. Some buildings and businesses were also owned by Asians outside Minnesota.
  • Most of the business owners interviewed reported receiving no start-up capital from the government. They put in a lot of sweat labor and their family resources to start and run their businesses. However the successful businesses also reported accessing outside resources such as SBA loans. As one business owner reported, she started out with her husband as workers in a restaurant and slowly built up their businesses.
  • It appears that security is a big concern of businesses on the avenue.

It appears from our preliminary survey that University Avenue sheds much light into the dynamic energy of Minnesota’s new immigrants. With practically no government resources they have revitalized the avenue through their entrepreneurial activity. Many of these entrepreneurs have built and expanded their businesses on the avenue and in the process achieved the American dream. One business owner proudly boasts of one of his children attending Notre Dame. From University Avenue to Notre Dame – that truly is an immigrant’s dream and achievement.


* This report was produced by a team of undergraduate Concordia University students in the Department of Business led by Dr. Bruce Corrie. Students walked down the avenue many times in April 2005 to document the number of businesses.

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