Mayor Mike McGinn announces a million dollar investment in 18 neighborhood business districts to a crowd of 100 neighborhood business leaders at Thompson’s Point of View in the Central District. Photo credit: KOMO News.
Mayor Mike McGinn announces a million dollar investment in 18 neighborhood business districts to a crowd of 100 neighborhood business leaders at Thompson’s Point of View in the Central District. Photo credit: KOMO News.

The Office of Economic Development has awarded the Chinatown/ International District $185,000 in grant funding for economic revitalization.

The grant — the largest award of all the competing business districts in the city – is part of the Seattle Jobs Plan, a $1 million program to spur investment in 18 neighborhood business districts. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn made the announcement at a Feb. 16 news conference.

“The Office of Economic Development is excited that the Chinatown/ International District business community came together to submit a strong, comprehensive plan for strengthening their neighborhood business climate,” said Steve Johnson, OED director.

“It was impressive that in a short time, the business leaders from the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and other business groups came together to support economic vitality in this important neighborhood. We look forward to working with all of them.”

The SCIDpda, CIDBIA, and Interim Community Development Association comprise the grant steering committee for the three-year initiative.

Community leaders see the grant as essential for increased economic development in light of the International District’s decline in recent years. Signs of that decline are evident in revenues from Chinatown’s retail businesses, which plummeted from $66 million to $41 million in the past decade alone. Restaurant sales dwindled by more than $10 million, and retail outlets dropped by more than $6 million.

Community leaders attribute much of the economic decline in the past decade to increased competition from new Asian businesses in outlying areas, growing negative perceptions of safety, and the absence of a more diverse mix of businesses. Revitalizing the International District, in their view, will require everything from growing new businesses to revamping its image as an inviting destination.

“The current lack of retail mix is unsustainable,” said Joyce Pisnanont of the SCIDpda. “We hope to engage with property owners to attract new businesses. It is still difficult for small business owners to get credit,” she said, noting that the International District still has an eighteen percent vacancy rate.

Since 2007, the Chinatown/ International District has partnered with the City of Seattle to develop an economic development roadmap to establish best practices to stimulate community and business development, Pisnanont said. “The studies reaffirmed what the community already knew anecdotally.”

Community leaders agree that one of the keys to economic revitalization is enhancing small business development. “Small businesses employ 72 percent of Seattle’s workforce and contributes 35 percent of the city’s business tax revenues, totaling $55.4 million,” said Karin Zaugg Black, OED spokesperson.

“Our local business districts serve as the location and incubators for many of the city’s small businesses. The Seattle Jobs Plan specifically targets investment in Seattle’s neighborhood business districts.”

The grant will focus investments to create a more vibrant climate for economic development in the Chinatown/ International District through business retention, marketing and promotion of the community’s amenities, keeping the neighborhood cleaner and safer, improving parking and implementation of physical improvements.

“Economic development is still not on the radar for commercial leasing agencies,” Pisnanont said. Another strategy involves more aggressive marketing to the make the Chinatown/ International District more inviting for small businesses.

Business leaders believe a more positive image is needed if the district is to realize its potential as a healthy and thriving area. In its 2011-2013 three-year action plan, which was submitted, the SCIDpda notes that in the next five years, the District will benefit from more than $5 million in public investment and transportation-related projects.

Community organizations have identified several milestones to measure success in their effort, said Pisnanont. “Decreasing the amount of vandalism in the Chinatown/International District, increasing the number of visitors, and business sales, and improving public awareness about improvements in the community are all important.”

At his news conference, Mayor McGinn joined neighborhood business district leaders and local business owners in unveiling the new Seattle Jobs Plan. “The programs we’re announcing today not only help these specific neighborhoods, but create jobs and add to the vitality of our entire city.”

Other local business communities receiving Only in Seattle grants included Capitol Hill [$145,000], Central District [$100,000], Martin Luther King/ Rainier Valley [$125,000], and Pioneer Square [$100,000].

“In addition to working with business and property owners in our neighborhood business districts, we are focused on providing direct services to businesses to help them grow and compete,” said OED director Johnson. The Seattle Jobs Plan, McGinn’s blueprint for economic development in Seattle and the Puget Sound region, was launched in August 2010.

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