Business has been tough at Troung An Gifts over the last year, so its owners were delighted to field a busy shop full of visitors last week for Lunar New Year.
Mimi Luong, who runs the Federal Boulevard business with her husband, siblings and parents, said Asian customers who couldn’t travel to Vietnam or China were clamoring for decorations and treats to celebrate at home in Denver. But she’s had to try some new things to keep other customers interested.
Usually, residents of all stripes would be drawn to her family’s parking lot and store by lion dancers, music and fireworks ringing in the new year. But the annual festival was off the table in 2021 thanks to COVID-19. Instead, Luong has spent recent weeks drumming up interest on Facebook and Instagram. She helped devise a couple of care packages for sale online, then began giving one away each day through her social media feeds. The Good Fortune bag, for instance, comes with a plush doll to celebrate the Year of the Ox, some sweets and some decorations.
“It has been a slow year,” she said. “We did more stuff that we’ve never done before, curbside pickups and phone orders.”
But Luong hasn’t had to navigate these strange times by herself. The Denver Streets Partnership, the West Denver Renaissance Collaborative and the BuCu West Development Association have been working together to promote businesses like hers along Federal, acting like a Business Improvement District (BID) in the absence of an official organization along the corridor. If they can help keep shops and restaurants afloat during this pandemic recession, they hope property owners will see the value in raising taxes to create a formal BID once the economy levels out.
Business and property owners on Federal, between Alameda and Mississippi avenues, were moving closer to a BID over the last few years. The pandemic shut those efforts down.
Luong has been an advocate for a BID, which she said could help cement the “Little Saigon District” as an irresistible destination in the city. In recent years, she’s worked with business owners and community groups to create events, like Asian night markets, that sought to prove how a collective effort might draw customers’ attention and cash to Federal Boulevard.
To start up a BID, half of all property owners in a given area must agree to hike up their taxes. That money is then funneled into an organization meant to support all of the businesses along the corridor. You may be familiar with BIDs along East and West Colfax Avenue — they’re the groups responsible for the painted electric boxes in Capitol Hill and fancy bus shelters by Sloan’s Lake.
The idea is a fairly easy sell for small-business owners who are likely to benefit from a beautified, cohesive neighborhood. Their landlords, who must shell out more tax revenue, are the people that really need convincing. Luong’s family owns both the gift shop and the buildings throughout Federal Boulevard’s Far East Center, so she understands both sides of the equation. She’d been working to convince people like her dad and uncle that the extra expense was worth it. Any headway she made before the pandemic vanished when the economy took a dive last year.
“Obviously, with COVID, it stopped everything completely. One, businesses are struggling. Two, there’s a lot of businesses that went out of business,” she said. “It’s just really hard.”
Jill Locantore, Denver Streets Partnership’s executive director, said the timing “couldn’t have been worse.”
“We were literally about to start petitioning, gathering signatures from property owners on the corridor, when the first stay-at-home orders were issued,” she said. “Then it became clear that this was going to have a really big economic impact on the corridor as well. Now was not the ideal time to ask businesses to increase taxes on themselves.”
Locantore said business owners couldn’t wait for an official BID when the economy disintegrated, so advocates “pivoted” to provide support themselves.
Many businesses along South Federal lacked an online presence at the pandemic’s start, so the first order of business for groups pushing for a BID was to build a website. They hired a marketing company to develop a site for the entire corridor, littlesaigondenver.com, that would help promote all of the multicultural dishes offered along the strip.
Next, they connected business owners with resources that might get them through the year of restrictions. They directed some businesses toward grant and loan programs as they helped others get tents for outdoor dining. For Lunar New Year, the Denver Streets Partnership printed banners to hang along the boulevard.
If there was ever a time when small businesses could use the support of a BID, Locantore said, it’s during an economy-crippling pandemic.
“It takes the burden off the individual property and business owners trying to navigate all of this insanity by having some entity whose job it is to think of and take care of the corridor as a whole,” she said.
Other districts with official BIDs have had the capacity to bounce back more quickly, she said. The Five Points BID, for example, has been offering one-off grants to business owners along Welton Street. The Colfax Avenue BID, which is run by Locantore’s husband, Frank, began selling “Bags of Colfax” that contained offerings from shops up and down the district. Those bags sold out. Locantore “stole” the idea and pitched it to Luong for her special Lunar New Year packages.
Luong said she’s hopeful her family and other property owners will still be open to pooling their resources once the economy returns to some semblance of “normal.”
“Because we’ve been able to play that pseudo-role for them, I really do think that it continues to build the momentum and the support for eventually forming a BID, once the economic situation makes that more feasible,” Locantore said. “It’s really going to benefit us, going forward, to have those strong relationships, even after the pandemic.”