It’s no secret, light rail transit (LRT) is coming to St. Paul and with major construction on University Avenue planned to begin in the next few years, the impact that LRT will have on the Hmong community will be very significant.
And yet, when meetings are held for business owners and residents to assist in the crucial stages of planning for LRT, the turnout rate of Hmong participants have been disappointing.
“We’ve tried everything from door knocking to personally inviting business owners,” insists Va-megn Thoj, policy associate to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “With very poor results.”
The lack of involvement of Hmong community members frustrates planners such as Thoj, especially when the Hmong have been instrumental to University Avenue’s economic and social revitalization over the last 20 years.
At the most recent public meeting on Saturday, September 16, where planners revealed the latest set of blueprints for LRT development, a room full of enthused community members packed into the recently opened Rondo Community Outreach Library to observe and ask questions. Aside from city workers and planning committee members, only two other Hmong community members showed up.
Neng Thao and his mother, Mai Khang Thao, owners of Foodsmart and Wung-Lee Supermarket, both longstanding markets on University, expressed concerns about how their businesses will be able to sustain themselves during the construction period, which is expected to last up to three years.
“Our customers will shop somewhere else if they don’t have a parking spot,” Neng revealed. “And for small businesses such as ours, we’re concerned about the property taxes becoming unaffordable.”
Va-megn Thoj said that many other Hmong and Vietnamese business owners have also brought those two particular concerns up. One of the suggestions that the city has in consideration, Thoj advised, was to offer small business owners some kind of mitigation assistance during the construction.
“Whether it’s a low-interest loan or marketing assistance, the city is exploring ways to support and retain the mom and pop stores that characterize University Avenue,” Thoj insists. “But we need input from these business owners for us to know how best to help.”
If retaining the ethnic identity of University Avenue is a priority, a lesson might be learned by the catastrophe that has occurred in Seattle where the construction of their LRT project, the Sound Transit, has displaced countless Vietnamese business to the wayside.
Despite the distribution of more than $50 million in mitigation funds to small businesses in the Rainier Valley neighborhood where more than half of the businesses were owned by Vietnamese and other minorities, the process has in essence diminished what once was an ethnic corridor in the city of Seattle.
“The construction of the Light Rail system has effectively destroyed a formally thriving community,” explained Nhien Nguyen, editor of International Examiner, a community paper based out of Seattle. “Building the light rail in this part of town has displaced at least 86 businesses and 50 residences. Though some mitigation funds were given, many businesses have not and will not survive the traffic impact of construction that has been going on for the past three years and will continue for several more. If businesses do survive the construction, the property value in this area will be too high for Vietnamese businesses to compete.”
When mitigation funds have helped to relocate businesses, Nguyen continues, “It has definitely been tough for Vietnamese businesses to re-establish themselves as there are fewer and fewer affordable neighborhoods to build businesses in the Seattle area. Many business owners have given up and will probably never re-establish themselves again.”
Unlike in Seattle where eminent domain played a big role in the construction of their light rail, St. Paul’s version has no plans to purchase properties and businesses, which, according to Va-megn Thoj, is key to retaining the current mix of ethnic businesses.
The other element working for the Hmong community, Thoj insists, is the mayor. “He truly values what the Hmong means to the city and is dedicated to doing what he can to serve their needs.”
The mayor’s commitment to include the Hmong into the equation may be illustrated, first by his appointment of Thoj in the role of policy associate and secondly in the appointment of three Hmong individuals to the University Avenue Central Corridor Task Force.
Bao Vang, Vatou Her and Mai Thor are part of a select group of 19 members whose task it is to develop recommendations for a vision and development strategy for the proposed LRT along University Avenue.
Their experience on the Task Force has afforded them insight on how LRT will impact the entire community. One of their biggest concerns right now in the early stages of planning is how the Hmong community has seemingly ignored the issue altogether.
“If we don’t get on board,” Bao Vang suggests. “We’ll get left out. And once construction begins, it will be too late for people to start asking why they weren’t included in the planning process. My challenge is to all the young, educated Hmong to step up to the plate on LRT. It’s time for us to get involved.”
Vatou Her agrees that his fellow business owners are missing the opportunity to take advantage their roles in the planning process. “We Hmong are so accustomed to running away, but here in St. Paul we need to settle down and take ownership. We have finally found a home, a place to call our own here in St. Paul. But now we need to speak up.”
Frustrated by the lack of involvement, Va-megn Thoj is taking matters into his own hands. With the mayor’s blessing, Thoj is planning to invite all Hmong business owners to join an ad hoc committee of business owners to discuss LRT and other business related items affecting the Hmong community.
“It’s time for us Hmong to have a voice.”
Q & A from www.centralcorridor.com
What is the Central Corridor?
The Central Corridor is an 11-mile transit route between Minneapolis and St. Paul. The major transportation arteries are Interstate 94 and University Avenue. The area is known for its many strong neighborhoods, institutions, businesses and attractions.
How much will LRT cost and who pays?
The current cost estimate for LRT for the Central Corridor is $930 million. Half of the funds are expected from the federal government. The rest will come from the state and Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
Will LRT affect property taxes?
The primary sources of LRT funding will be the federal, state and county governments. The project itself will not likely cause a significant increase in property taxes.
The expected increase in property values in the immediate vicinity of the transit line will likely be the source of a property tax increase. In most cities, property taxpayers near light rail lines have seen a significant increase in their net worth as a result of increased property values.
How can we ensure that minorities benefit from LRT?
We can ensure that all interested parties benefit from LRT by continuing public outreach efforts, by following the federal laws that pertain to the projects and by reaching out to minority communities to be involved in the planning efforts.
Where will space for LRT come from on University Avenue?
University Avenue is 120 feet wide. There is enough space on University Avenue for sidewalks, two travel lanes in each direction, two LRT tracks and parking. Where stations are located and left turn lanes are constructed, there will not be enough space for parking.