On East Sprague Avenue, not far from downtown, businesses are embracing a nonprofit-led effort toward redevelopment of what is now called the International District.
A five-block area on Sprague between Helena and Crestline streets sports new orange and blue banners depicting a flag composed of the flags of many nations. Neighborhood cleanups, store facade improvements, and an upbeat attitude among some of the business owners provide evidence of momentum for change in the long-depressed neighborhood that extends from Interstate 90 on the south to the BNSF Railway Co. tracks on the north.
The new International District, which officially was named at a Cinco de Mayo celebration there in May, expects next week to release its redevelopment "action plan," a three- to five-year strategy for attracting new business, improving safety, and developing improved housing, says Teri Stripes, the city of Spokane's business and development coordinator.
Stripes says the name was chosen after a poll was taken on the city's Web site and among interested parties in the district. It represents several ethnic businesses located on the five blocks of the designated district, such as Bay Oriental Market, at 2022 E. Sprague, and Vien Dong Inc., at 1730 E. Sprague. Other ethnic businesses listed on the International District Web site are located outside the district's boundaries.
Organizations working in the district to create change include Impact Capital, a Seattle-based nonprofit; Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs (SNAP); and the East Spokane Business Association.
Nick Au, who manages the Vien Dong Restaurant, which serves Vietnamese and Chinese fare, says he joined the East Spokane Business Association after the restaurant had several break-ins.
"Thankfully, somebody reported it. We don't have friends in the neighborhood, so it shows that people care. That's the sense of community here," Au says.
Now, Au says he's working to keep the block where Vien Dong is located, at 1730 E. Sprague, "as clean as possible."
Au says he's heard from customers that the area "has gotten a little safer."
"It's all 'what goes around comes around,'" he says. "If something were to happen across the street, I'd call the cops right away, and vice versa."
Impact Capital, funded by donations from financial institutions and foundations, makes loans to nonprofits, tribal entities, and housing authorities to spur community development. It has programs in Seattle in the Chinatown-International District, and elsewhere. After looking at possible projects here, it agreed last year to a two-year, $48,000 contract with the city, Stripes says.
The organization "was hired as an extension of city staff to provide services we don't have time to do," says Dale Strom, a city planner in the community development department.
Impact Capital looked at several areas here, and the East Central neighborhood, which includes the International District, seemed like its best option.
"The East Central Neighborhood Council had done a lot of work already. It had the strong organization needed for working on a grass-roots development," Stripes says.
Impact Capital employs Boris Borisov, formerly a city employee working under Stripes, to head the work in the district. SNAP assigned Holly Martin to the project and moved its East Central office to 1802 E. Sprague last November, "to give us more of a presence in the district," Martin says. Symbol, Borisov, and Martin worked with focus groups composed of city staff, Impact Capital staff, and East Spokane Business Association members to devise the action plan.
So far, Impact Capital has provided $255,000 for creation of the International District logo, street banners, and other marketing materials, for development of the action plan, and for Impact Capital and SNAP staff time, Stripes says.
One aspect of the strategy is a safety plan. As part of the plan, the city has implemented an Alcohol Impact Area in the district, which limits the sale of single container high-alcohol-content liquor. Compliance with the city ordinance is voluntary, but may become mandatory if a year-long study shows it is needed.
Other focuses of the plan include cleanup of vacant lots; reporting of illegal dumping, graffiti, and suspicious activity; installation of security cameras in areas known for illegal activity; and increased security patrols. Another is securing funds to create a streetscape that will slow traffic through the district, making it safer for pedestrians.
The action plan also includes city incentives for businesses to locate within the district. SNAP plans to match prospective businesses with properties that are available, and has been developing a database of buildings and properties within the district to aid that effort.
"There hasn't been a lot of new business activity yet. It will be a long process. There are things you can't plan for, like the meltdown in the economy," Martin says.
Plans are in place to renovate living spaces above retail stores on East Sprague. To redevelop the neighborhoods to the north and south of the commercial strip, the city has implemented zoning changes that will allow for infill with multifamily residences, Martin says.
So far, the International District shows little resemblance to Seattle's Chinatown-International District, located near its downtown. That district has a high concentration of residents from Asian and Southeast Asian cultures, and a high concentration of Asian-owned businesses. Well-organized cultural festivals occur throughout the year.
That district's nonprofit Business Improvement Area is funded through a self-imposed tax on business and property owners within its boundaries. Funds are used to promote tourism there, to maintain and enhance its appearance, to police the area, and to improve access to transportation, its Web site says.
In Spokane's International District, by comparison, "We know we have a long way to go to fulfill the vision of what it can be," Martin says.
Ethnic businesspeople within the district have a variety of reactions to its new identity.
Au is enthusiastic about the district. He says he lives in Hillyard, where a revitalization of Market Street took place. "I'm excited to see the changes that took place in Hillyard, and I believe they are going to happen in this area, too," Au says.
At the same time, "I wish there were a little more diversity business-wise," Au says.
The Bollywood Video & Grocery, which specialized in East Indian items, closed on June 30. The owner of that business, who couldn't be reached for comment, still operates Bollywood Computer & Security in the same space, at 1808 E. Sprague.
A Mexican restaurant operated in the district for three years before closing recently, says LaVerne Biel, co-owner of Access Telcom, at 2202 E. Sprague, and president of the East Spokane Business Association.
Two Russian grocery and variety stores, Mariupol Deli & Bakery, at 3329 E. Sprague, and Kiev Market LLC, at 4823 E. Sprague, are located outside the boundaries of the International District. When contacted, the owners of those stores didn't know an international district exists in Spokane.
Lindsey Tran, who manages Bay Oriental Market for owner Van Chiu, says Asian customers who buy groceries there don't live in the neighborhood.
Ryan Tran, who owns Future Nail Supplies LLC, at 1911 E. Sprague, but is not related to Lindsey Tran, says he maintains his business location close to Bay Market "because all my community goes to Bay Market to get food. They stop over here to buy nail supplies, but I've got to be very, very careful." Tran says his store has been broken into twice since he opened there four years ago. He keeps his door locked during business hours, because he says he doesn't feel safe.
"The bad thing about this area is the hookers," Tran says. "They walk back and forth on this road every day during the daytime. I don't want those people to get into my shop."
Tracy Reich, a senior program officer with Impact Capital, says that no longer are there adult bookstores or massage parlors on that stretch of East Sprague.
"Small, incremental steps add up quickly," Borisov says. He says the perception of East Sprague as a red light district is changing. "As this progresses, I see it turning into the cool place to be," he says.
Reich says, "We're already seeing that one building fixed up becomes contagious. It's enticing to come to a location on the cusp of revitalizing. When you're on the ground floor, you can shape who your neighbors are. There's a buzz and synergy that comes from all that activity."
Erin Rauth, her husband, Jacob, and mother, Marsha Loiacono, plan to open The Flying Pig Cafe, at 1822 E. Sprague, in early September. Rauth says they chose the name because when they first talked of opening an eatery, the three of them agreed it would happen "when pigs fly."
She says the family decided to locate in the International District because they already had relationships there, because the right building became available, and because, "It's a nice, busy street. With the International District popping up, it seemed like things were turning around. I like it that we're getting in at the beginning," Rauth says.
When Impact Capital's contract with the city ends, it says it will continue to maintain a presence in the district. One goal of the redevelopment plan is to secure funding to carry efforts into the future. Martin says a Business Improvement District (BID), which would fund development through a tax or fee on businesses within the district, is a possible source for sustained effort.
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