I have a unique perspective on the impact of the larger economy on our local economy in the International District. The negative impact on commercial activity and business is significant. I receive calls from commercial tenants who request rent concessions because customers are spending less. Prime commercial storefront spaces sit vacant for months and now moving into years. Businesses have closed up or moved out.
Demand for low-income housing remains high and turnovers are lower. That may be something private property owners desire, but not from a community development perspective. Fewer families are finding the credit to purchase homes, which means fewer opportunities for new families to be part of the neighborhood. When families move away from the International District, they tend to remain as stakeholders and customers of the neighborhood.
Nobody is immune from the economic crisis and it’s not over. I receive regular inquiries from people in the neighborhood seeking additional work because they had their hours cut at the hotel or restaurant they work at. Some inquire about a job or leads, because they have been laid-off. This includes restaurant workers, custodians, architects and engineers.
No matter what you hear from the experts, the global economy and local ID economy is stagnant and I don’t see it turning around soon. My perspective is also unique because the local neighborhood economy directly affects my paycheck and livelihood. My employer, SCIDpda, does not receive direct funding from the City of Seattle but relies on revenue from its own operations of property and services. Due to the leasing vacancies, lack of credit for development and cuts in funding for services, SCIDpda has had to make some difficult decisions that have affected their employees including a two-year wage freeze, cuts in benefits and many of us are on mandatory furloughs once a month, which is a 4.6 percent reduction in pay. So my livelihood, as well as 90 other SCIDpda employees, directly depends on the economic development of the neighborhood.
Therefore, I have little patience for people who don’t have real solutions to the real problems in the neighborhood.
In my last column, I wrote about the names: Chinatown, International District, Nihonmachi, Japantown, Manilatown and Little Saigon and their historical context to the neighborhood. In short, there are many historical reasons to call the neighborhood by all these names.
In this column, I will explore the role of the names when it comes to the marketing and economic development of the entire neighborhood. Does calling the neighborhood “Chinatown” create better economic opportunities for businesses and residents? Can Little Saigon remain its own enclave without a connection to the rest of the ID? Is Japantown just a name or are the businesses willing to collaborate over the long term to further the legacy and attract more businesses? What is the appropriate use of Manilatown for marketing and economic development in the ID?
Chinatown vs International District. If you are exclusively selling the brand “Chinatown” for the neighborhood, I’m not buying. I agree that “Chinatown” has global branding and recognition. I say “Chinatown” and most people can envision a neighborhood with Chinese residents, restaurants, businesses and genuine cultural experiences. I do not dismiss the marketing value of “Chinatown” and the use of it for people to identify with the name, especially tourists.
However, this neighborhood is not dependant on tourists. Tourism is important, but the ID is not reliant on it and never should be. The economic sustainability of the neighborhood is dependant on attracting people from the region who value the diversity of the neighborhood and what it has to offer. That means marketing the distinctiveness of each ethnic area to offer visitors experiences in Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon. But also marketing the International District as a whole, as a destination with many opportunities and experiences.
After spending 25 years in ID, I know there is no “easy answer” when it comes to the economic development and the neighborhood. Community development work will always be hard in the ID. The diversity and sustainability of the neighborhood demands inclusion and cooperation, which only comes when trust and faith is built and nurtured between people and organizations. What’s in a name? Is it a brand, an experience, a history, or is it more?