Advocates for a new Business Improvement District along South Federal proved what collaboration could achieve on Friday night.
Instead of business as usual, the shopping center dubbed Little Saigon at Federal and Mississippi was alive with live music, vendors and hundreds of people milling about. It was proof of concept for a “night market,” something common in southeast Asian cities and enclaves in other U.S. cities.
The crowds persisted until 10 p.m. despite rain. Father Joseph Dang, a leader in the westside Vietnamese community who has worked with WalkDenver and other stakeholders to shepherd this idea of a new BID, was ecstatic.
“I did pray really hard” about the weather, he said. God may not have answered his request for clear skies, but the plan worked nonetheless.
“I mean, look, it’s packed!”
Dang and others have been planning to launch a BID over the past year. It’s one more piece in a puzzle of infrastructure projects that aim to make the stretch of Federal, south of Alameda, safer with improved access to local businesses. They’ve been canvassing the array of mostly family-owned restaurants and retail shops hoping to win over the 50 percent of property owners required to bring their BID proposal to a public vote.
Jill Locantore of WalkDenver said they hope that decision will be made in November of 2020. It’s been a long process because the neighborhood is so dense with individual proprietors, which she added is part of the area’s “beauty.”
“There are over 100 different property owners, and it just takes time to reach out to every single one of them,” she said. “We haven’t heard a single ‘no.’ Everybody is enthusiastically ‘yes,’ or they are interested and they want to learn more.”
Besides entertaining locals and visitors, the night market was meant to show business and property owners how their collective action could take the corridor to the next level. The event cost about $30,000 and was financed by a grant. By pooling their resources, Locantore said, BID businesses could do this all the time. Friday’s crowds, she said, proved the point.
Vu Bui’s family runs Pho 555, which sits on the corner of Federal and Mississippi, adjacent to the night market. His restaurant was running a wait as rain ushered attendees in to find shelter and hot pho. He and his family are on board for the proposed business district.
“It’ pretty bomb. It’s awesome,” he said of the market next door.
He’s seen this type of thing in Orange County, California, where established southeast Asian communities there hold similar events three nights a week during the summer. He’d love to see that kind of regularity take root along Federal.
Hien Lee, who’s worked at New Siagon Market in the Little Saigon parking lot for three years, said she loved seeing the diverse crowd. Usually, it’s mostly Asian clientele stopping by on a Friday night. This new activity, she said, is “really fun.”
A multicultural experience was part of the point, Dang said, after he ushered local Chicano band Los Mocochetes onto the “stage” in front of Golden Eye Optical and the Advanced Rx pharmacy. They were accompanied by the Grupo Tlaloc Aztec dancers.
“This is not only a Vietnamese area, it’s diverse,” he said. “It’s saying: we are one of many now in one community.”
Alex Markovich lives along a stretch of Federal further north and said he heads south sometimes for dinner. He doesn’t usually walk around, the area isn’t good for that at the moment. But the night market got him out of his car. He said he hasn’t seen anything like it in this neighborhood, and he hope this won’t be the last time he does.
“It’s nice to be able to go to different parts of the city and experience unique things,” he said.
“As long as it doesn’t get overly gentrified,” his buddy, Mike Alderman, added.
“Yeah,” Markovich replied. “It’s gotta stay authentic.”
That’s the fine line BID advocates have to walk as they seek a fresh start for South Federal.
Leslie Twarogowski is executive director of Federal Boulevard’s only BID, which draws its boundaries north of 22nd Avenue. She said it’s going to be tricky to keep that authenticity while supporting growth. Athmar Park is already changing.
But that fear isn’t enough to keep her, Dang, Locantore and others from trying.
Twarogowski said the west side has had trouble improving like other parts of the city because the area has less consolidated power.
“On Colfax, there’s like five BIDs. What that means is they have five times the lobbying power,” she said. “The more BIDs there are, the more improvements there are, and the more money we can lobby for and be successful.”
She imagines improvements cascading up and down Federal like “dominoes” if the second business district comes on line. If they can succeed on the south side, she believes her efforts to the north will also be bolstered. It’s a way to subvert the “inverted L” phenomenon of inequality that’s persisted on this side of town for years.
Councilwoman Debbie Ortega said making South Federal safe and fun is “absolutely doable,” despite that the corridor being ranked as city’s most dangerous for walking because of car crashes. A BID would allow businesses to maintain new infrastructure projects, but initial funding for new changes could require money from the city’s budget.
Right now, there are plans in the works to replace Federal’s turning lane with a median and revamp the sidewalks to provide better drainage and a more attractive look. Once those are finished, Ortega said, she and others will have to keep an eye on pedestrian deaths and local businesses’ health to see if another bond measure might be needed.
Father Dang can already envision the future here.
“It will be an awesome place where you can shop, you can walk, you can call this a Vietnamese town,” he said.
It’s been a lot of work, and his camp has a lot more to do, but the night market’s success has only reinvigorated his enthusiasm.
“It shows them that we can do this. We can, together, make an effort and make this happen,” he said. “Our vision is to revitalize the community.”