The Year of the Dollar

Cleveland’s Asian population is having a quantifiable economic impact on the city.
The term “Chinatown” probably makes you think of San Francisco or New York. But growth in the area from East 30th to East 40th streets between Perkins and St. Clair avenues in Cleveland may change that perception.

You may have seen public art displayed through the area depicting the current Chinese year’s animal, or sampled the Asian restaurants that populate the neighborhood. The attractions of great food, free parking and easy access are hard to resist.

But AsiaTown is much more than good food and interesting art. It is making a significant economic impact on Cleveland and our region.

St. Clair Superior Development Corporation started branding the area (along with a strip on Rockwell Avenue from the original Chinatown) as AsiaTown about five years ago. Michael Fleming, executive director of the development corporation, says, “The AsiaTown Master Plan first started out with the recognition that there is an AsiaTown here in Cleveland.”

The growth of northeast Ohio’s Asian population is confirmed in a report from The Asian American Center for Advancing Justice. Using data from the 2000–2010 U.S. Census, the report focuses on Asian Americans as well as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI) in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul and the state of Wisconsin.

According to Marita Etcubanez, director of programs for the Asian American Justice Center — a member organization of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice —there has been dramatic growth in the Asian-American population in the seven-county Cleveland region. Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group, seeing a 42 percent growth rate from 2000 to 2010. (Hispanics grew by 39 percent and Whites decreased 6 percent.)

There are 67,000 Asian Americans in the Northeast Ohio region (2 percent of the population) and more than 2,200 NHPIs. In Cuyahoga County alone there are 39,136 Asian Americans, representing 3 percent of the population. That’s a 32 percent increase from 2000 to 2010. NHPI growth was 19 percent.

The largest Asian-American communities in Cleveland are Indian (31 percent), Chinese (22 percent), Filipino (12 percent), Korean (8 percent), Vietnamese (6 percent) and Japanese (5 percent). And these groups are creating an economic impact.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 Business Owners Survey indicates that Asian Americans owned more than 18,000 businesses in Ohio. Thirty-four percent of these businesses had paid employees. Those 51,000 employees earned nearly $1.4 billion in payroll. That’s more than any other racial group except Whites.

These businesses are mostly concentrated in health care and social assistance; accommodation and food services; and professional, scientific and technical services.

Some of the most visible of these businesses are Asiatown’s new restaurants. Who would think that three Vietnamese noodle restaurants could survive in a two-block area on Superior Avenue? But business growth extends far beyond this so-called “Pho Row.”

Radhika Reddy of Ariel Ventures on East 40th Street is working with the port authority to create a Foreign Trade Zone. “This area is a great distribution hub. Warehousing in India is more expensive. You can get $3 a square foot here whereas in India it’s $5.”

Jamar Doyle, assistant director of the St. Clair Superior Development Corporation, says, “New shops, restaurants and developments continue to open to meet the needs of this growing population, in turn drawing more visitors to the area. Millions of dollars’ worth of investment have resulted, including new facilities like the Ariel International Center and Asian Town Center, as well as continued expansions at neighborhood anchors like Asia Plaza and Tyler Village.”

A huge stimulus for AsiaTown is the annual Cleveland Asian Festival. Johnny Wu, a marketing and branding strategist, and others developed the idea. In 2010, the first CAF drew more than 10,000 visitors. A two-day event in 2011 drew more than 30,000, and, Wu says, “In 2012, CAF had 42,240 attendees who spent over $2 million at the festival.”

The trickle-down effect from people who learn about AsiaTown from the Asian Festival and then visit again was a primary goal. Wu says that CAF was started to help strengthen the identity of AsiaTown and support its economic growth, educate and promote Asian culture and traditions, celebrate Asian Heritage Month and unite Cleveland’s Asian Community. The 2013 CAF will be May 18 and 19 at East 30th Street and Payne Avenue.

Tapping into the growth of AsiaTown includes some challenges. Take language, for instance. Asian Americans are the only racial group in Cleveland that is majority (64 percent) foreign-born. Most of them speak a language other than English at home, a rate higher than any other group. (The top five Asian languages spoken in Cleveland are Chinese, Hindi, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Korean.)

Within AsianTown, the largest community is people of Chinese descent, especially those from Fujian Province. But there are other Chinese as well who speak more than a dozen different dialects. Other groups in the area are primarily from Southeast Asia. They include Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian.

Michael Byun, executive director of Asian Services in Action Inc., says, “It’s important for businesses to recognize that to be successful in working with Asian people or in the Asian market locally involves having someone interpret at a meeting or translating documents here and there.”

Moreover, a forceful business style that works with native-borns might seem pushy to Asians. Wu cautions that “each ethnic group is different. Being respectful and humble would help connect the relationships. Asian business is built by relationship mostly and then brand, so relationship-building is key.”

According to Doyle, another challenge is “the built form of the AsiaTown area. Unlike other areas of the city where investment is concentrated in one area near a neighborhood anchor, in AsiaTown investment is happening in smaller nodes of activity found throughout the district. Furthermore, most of our markets, shopping plazas and artists’ communities are contained within converted warehouses spread throughout the area, essentially hiding much of this activity from sight.”

A third challenge is immigration. The family immigration component (sponsorship of relatives to immigrate to the United States) of the much-discussed federal immigration laws is of particular interest to the Asian community, where many of the businesses are family-run.

There are currently 4.3 million people waiting to receive their visas in what is commonly known as the “backlog.” Almost 2 million (nearly 50 percent) of those individuals are Asian. Byun helped organize an event in April at the Philippine Cultural Center in Parma with representatives from the Asian communities who are impacted.

Byun explained to the group that in the current immigration system, two-thirds of visas are given to legal immigrants’ family and 14 percent are given for employment. Priority is given to spouse and minor (under 21) children, followed by unmarried adult children (over 21) and married adult children and brothers/sisters (siblings). (A March 14 Washington Post article revealed that a group of senators plans to remove the second two priority categories, effectively eliminating legal immigration for the unmarried and married children over 21 of legal immigrants, as well as their brothers and sisters.)

At the gathering, Indian immigrant and attorney Jayashree Bidari spoke of the need to move away from employment-based vs. family-based visas and immigration. She asked, “Who would want to come to a country where you can’t [eventually] reunite with your family?”

Bessie Schiroky of the Philippine Nurses Association of Ohio described how her own family has been split and unfairly affected
because members legally followed current immigration laws. Her nephew, in his early 20s, is being advised not to get married so he will have a better chance to immigrate. His girlfriend, whose family lives in the Philippines, had no trouble getting a tourist visa to the U.S., but he, with family in the U.S., was denied a visa to visit his family.

Vietnamese immigrant Gia Hoa Ryan related how it took almost 20 years to get many of her family members to the United States. Now some of the children are over 21 and cannot come with their family.

Population growth and business opportunities are just what a city like Cleveland needs. But we don’t have to go outside the country for all of it. Byun says, “I think regional economic development efforts have been focused externally — such as attracting business and jobs from Asian countries like China — when in fact there is an untapped opportunity to draw Asian people across state and regional borders.”

Byun offered the growth of the Korean community in the Atlanta metro area as an example. Most came through interstate migration from places like Flushing, New York, and other parts of the United States.

Byun is a transplant from the West Coast. He has been in Northeast Ohio for over a decade and, he says, “Over the years, I’ve seen a noticeable positive change in the AsiaTown neighborhood — new businesses are going up, our agency is seeing more and more clients, and there’s been growing interest from local civic leaders, politicians and others in what’s going on in AsiaTown.”