Little Africa cultural district launches in Central Corridor

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The recession and light rail construction have hurt Afeworki Bein’s restaurant, but he is hoping that Little Africa can help. Little Africa is the brand African Economic Development Solutions (AEDS) wants to make for blocks along Snelling Avenue between University and Minnehaha.

Gene Gelgelu, executive director of AEDS, said Snelling is the busiest street in Saint Paul, and that the Central Corridor light rail line will make it busier. The problem, he says, is that most people drive right by the businesses on Snelling near University. He hopes to create visibility for those businesses and draw more customers by marketing the area as Little Africa. 

According to Gelgelu’s research, there are 20 businesses owned by African immigrants like Bein in the area proposed for Little Africa. There are restaurants, grocery stores, clothes stores, an insurance company, and a travel agent. He says that the response from stakeholders in the area has been positive so far, but he expects some people will not be interested. 

Bein immigrated to the United States in 1986. He had been living in Sudan, but was from Eritrea, a country lying on the African coast of the Red Sea. Before 2002, he worked at “so many things” he said, like cleaning offices, driving a taxi, and working in a nursing home. In that year, though, he opened the Snelling Cafe on the corner of Snelling and Blair Avenues. The economy and LRT construction have affected his business. “It was bad,” he said, “It’s a little better now. It’s hard work.”

Little Africa came out of a larger cultural district branding project called the World Cultural Heritage District (WCHD), said Bruce Corrie. Corrie is a business professor at Concordia University and one architect of the WCHD. Non-profits and district councils put together the WCHD as a way to support business along University between the state capitol and Snelling Avenue so they could survive LRT construction. Other specific cultural districts within that area, such as Little Mekong around University and Western, have launched brands already.

Gelgelu said planning marketing strategies and even finalizing the name of Little Africa will take at least a year. The WCHD’s World Dollars program, however, is already helping businesses in Little Africa. Since May, the WCHD has been distributing five dollar coupons that people can spend at participating businesses within the WCHD area. The businesses then return their coupons in and get reimbursed. Corrie said that customers have already used 30 coupons in Little Africa. 

For customers, the process is simple.  You simply go to a participating business and hand over the voucher with your payment.  Five dollars will be taken off your check.  This reporter easily redeemed one for a gyro at the Snelling Care.  Readers can request a voucher here, and can find a participating business here.

Corrie hopes that the coupons will bring more business to the area. He pointed to one example where a customer at an African owned restaurant used a coupon to pay for part of a $138 bill.

Bein said people have used coupons at his cafe, and that “it does help.”

Another aspect of Little Africa will be a free book exchange at the Snelling Cafe called the Little Free Library.  There will be a luncheon to launch the Little Free Library at the Snelling Cafe on July 27.