In an effort to attract new entrepreneurs and strengthen existing businesses in the Chinatown-International District, the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda) will use the $500,000 in state capital funding they lobbied for last legislative session to construct Design INC, a co-working center that will inhabit 4,000 square feet of shared office space in the Bush Asia Center on South Jackson Street and Maynard Avenue South.
Design INC will aim to attract and support emerging entrepreneurs in the creative, design and technology-driven industries, provide a professional workspace for established small businesses in all fields and provide a business counseling center to connect small start-ups or existing businesses to consultants, training and other business improvement resources, including planning and marketing to help neighborhood businesses become more profitable and competitive in the marketplace. The CID is currently home to more than 400 small businesses.
“This space will welcome entrepreneurs from Seattle as well from all over the Pacific Rim,” noted Quang Nguyen, senior economic development specialist at IDEA Space and SCIDpda. “We’re working with various community partners to develop a business technical assistance program that will be able to support and nurture this entrepreneurial eco-system. New and existing business owners in the neighborhood will be able to get connected to business workshops as well as one-on-one technical assistance.”
Business collaborators include Washington Women’s Business Center at Community Capitol Development, Bainbridge Graduate Institute, University of Washington (UW) Consulting and Business Development Center, the UW Entrepreneurial Law Clinic, Seattle University Albers School of Business, Greater Seattle SCORE and the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Earlier this year, the Washington State Microenterprise Association also awarded a $10,000 grant to build the capacity of the SCIDpda’s current business technical assistance services, as offered through its IDEA Space program. In addition, a $75,000 grant from Union Bank will help build its organizational capacity over three years and provide business counseling. The impact this will have on the business climate of the CID neighborhood within the next five years will depend on how the economy is doing, noted Nguyen.
“If it picks up and grows at a faster pace, this area will become much more attractive to developers because of its proximity to downtown and transit. If this happens, we could see a boom in development similar to what’s currently happening on Capitol Hill,” said Nguyen. “It’ll be good for the neighborhood to have more workforce and market-rate housing. However, we also must balance this with more affordable housing for those families that are low-income. One thing is fairly certain: the cost of leasing commercial space will increase. The big question is whether the mom-and-pop businesses of this neighborhood can adjust quickly enough to keep up with the changes.”
Some of the longest-operating businesses in the CID will have to adjust to new practices because, according to Nguyen, “many of these small businesses are competing mainly on price. There are just too many similar businesses competing for the same piece of the pie, which forces the price of their product or service down. They need to better differentiate their business from one another. This entails understanding who their target customers are and developing a value proposition that meets their specific needs.”
Though his business hasn’t taken as much of an economic hit as other neighborhood restaurants, Richard Chang, co-owner of one of the CID’s oldest mainstays, Kau Kau BBQ, wants to keep offering Chinese barbeque for $5 and retain the more intimate neighborly relationships he has with regular customers.
But the reality is that many businesses such as Kau Kau may need technical assistance, particularly online, according to both Kau Kau co-owners Lynn Eng Chang and Richard Chang.
“We do actually have a website that actually needs to be updated a lot,” said Lynn Eng Chang.
Though Kau Kau has customers that order online, their website is not set up for a steady volume of online orders. At the same time, “there is a growing group of people that start doing everything online,” Eng Chang noted. This is an area of need where she sees a technical assistance program aided by neighborhood tech entrepreneurs could be most helpful to businesses.
But something of the original character and business culture of the CID could be lost with this gain, noted Richard Chang.
“We built our business brick by brick by brick,” he explained. “So it’s good that you can order in from the computer, then get an order and just pick it up, but personally, I like to talk to my customers. I kind of like to listen to their voice and say, ‘Oh, that’s this person. OK, this customer — this is what he wants. This is how he wants it.’ But if you go into the computer, you lose all that context.”
In addition to strengthening businesses already in the neighborhood, SCIDpda is ultimately hoping to attract businesses that are complementary or do not compete directly with those currently in the CID. Since the business district is predominately comprised of restaurants, grocery stores and beauty salons, bringing in freelancers and entrepreneurs from the tech, design and creative industries could also build another customer base for existing businesses.
“In the big picture, the more professional office workers we attract to the neighborhood, the larger the customer base is for our existing businesses,” said Quang Nguyen.
Tam Nguyen, owner of Tamarind Tree, a provincial Vietnamese Restaurant in Little Saigon, agreed: “Once these small businesses and nonprofit organizations become successful, it will help other businesses to come to our district to open and to thrive in our neighborhood.”
“I love hanging out at the Bush Garden but I think we need more choices on cool places to have a few beers or cocktails,” he continued. “I really like some of the newer additions to the neighborhood like the New Eastern Cafe and World Pizza. More upscale restaurants serving various Asian cuisines would be great.”
While construction of the business workspace in the Bush Asia Center building continues, SCIDpda is planning to have a grand opening for it toward the end of 2014. They will also begin cultivating this new entrepreneurial business community and gathering them in the neighborhood in the next few months.
“Cultivating a community is about finding like-minded people and bringing them together for an event. The rest is chemistry,” said Quang Nguyen.
Christina Twu contributed to this report.