Little Mekong: A Successful Launch

By: Va-Megn Thoj and Nancy Pomplun, Asian Economic Development Association
March 21, 2012

University Avenue east of Dale Street has attracted Asian businesses since the 1980s. Their presence has organically created a distinctive ethnic business district that has helped revitalize east University Avenue. However, despite the growth of hundreds of Asian businesses over the years, the district has remained nameless. That changed recently.

On Saturday, February 25, 2012, the Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA) successfully launched Little Mekong, giving a brand name to the Asian business and culture district. A special pullout section published in the Pioneer Press made the Little Mekong brand known to over 300,000 readers for the first time, and University Avenue’s Asian businesses became the buzz of Saint Paul.

Held at Mai Village restaurant, the “Taste of Little Mekong” launch celebration drew a capacity crowd of visitors. Reservations for the event filled quickly and was closed by noon on the first day. The evening’s entertainment began with loud firecrackers, followed by heart-thumping drums and dancing dragons of all sizes and colors that bobbed their heads and looked curiously at the people who had come from as far as Wisconsin to participate in the launch of Little Mekong. Mayor Chris Coleman and State Representative Rena Moran led a ribbon cutting ceremony to commemorate the beginning of the Little Mekong district. A highlight of the activities included a walking tasting tour, where over 100 visitors sampled great food from seven Little Mekong restaurants.

“You can bet and know that we will support Little Mekong,” said Judy Boege after the festivities. “The entertainment was so wonderful and enjoyable, the food at the various restaurants delicious. We are so looking forward to visit the restaurants and shops again and again. This area is such a gem. Thank you for your great hospitality.”

Sandy Morelli shared the same enthusiasm: “I wanted to tell you what a wonderful event the Taste was. The opportunity to tour the restaurants will open my experience to explore other establishments. I especially liked (Ha Tien) market and ended up buying a few things. Now I know where to find specialty things I need for recipes and treats. Thanks so much! I have already started to spread the word.”

The planning to brand the east section of University Avenue from Galtier Street to Mackubin Street began about one year ago, with support from The McKnight Foundation, The Saint Paul Foundation, and the F.R. Bigielow Foundation. Mindful of the impact and changes that will come with light rail transit on University Avenue, AEDA’s planning focused on supporting businesses during light rail construction and on preserving the characteristics of the Little Mekong district. AEDA discussed marketing needs with businesses, created customer profiles, and researched the successes of other ethnic districts. AEDA developed marketing and branding strategies that we will implement to bring in visitors to support the businesses during and after light rail construction. At the same time, AEDA will work with partners such as the Neighborhood Development Center, Metropolitan Design Center, Frogtown Neighborhood Association, and Summit-University to improve the buildings and physical environment.

The goal of developing Little Mekong into a thriving business and culture destination is sustainable economic development. Little Mekong will allow Asian businesses to work collectively and leverage resources to develop the district and to support the needs of its surrounding communities and address housing, jobs, and other neighborhood livability issues.

AEDA hopes to continue the momentum of the successful launch of Little Mekong. AEDA will continue to coordinate with its partners to attract customers to Little Mekong and University Avenue during LRT construction. We will hold more tasting tours and other events, support businesses in providing customer incentives, and create more opportunities to raise awareness of construction impacts. Over the coming years, AEDA’s Little Mekong initiative will also result in a new look for the district as façades are improved, pedestrian traffic increased, and more activities take place in the district.

While LRT construction will be tough on the businesses and the community, AEDA is optimistic that Little Mekong will shine brighter as a jewel on the new light rail line for all to visit and enjoy.