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Trying to get Cambodia Town off the ground

Long Beach provided the designation but left financial support up to businesses in the area. Many have been reluctant to sign on, but backers of the district are working hard to persuade them.

November 01, 2009|My-Thuan Tran

Sithea San rejoiced when Long Beach officials designated a strip of Anaheim Street the nation's first Cambodia Town in 2007. The name would celebrate the largest Cambodian population center in the country and help revitalize the gritty neighborhood, she believed.

San envisioned one day looking down Anaheim Street and seeing facades resembling ornate Cambodian temples; a large-scale shopping center where tourists could sample Cambodian cuisine and buy handcrafts; and even a museum outlining the history of Cambodian Americans in Long Beach.

But years after the official designation, the fate of Cambodia Town remains in limbo. Long Beach officials did not commit city funds to improve the area.

Backers have been struggling to persuade businesses on the 1.2-mile strip to shell out money to support a business improvement district, which is mandated by the city to pay for additional services, such as special signs, increased security, street cleaning and landscaping.

These are features that would lure investors and tourists to the area, said San, chairwoman of Cambodia Town Inc. But for businesses, many of them mom-and-pop shops hurt by the economic downturn, the extra services would mean paying $50 to $200 in extra fees per year.

"You can't blame the small businesses because they count every penny, and they don't necessarily feel the need" for the district, San said. "They are asking us, 'I already pay high taxes; why should I have to pay extra?' "

For San, a refugee who fled the killing fields in Cambodia with her family as a teenager, the answer is simple. "We should be proud to have Cambodia Town," she said. "In the U.S., we are the only place that has one."

On a recent Saturday afternoon, San and a dozen other Cambodian Americans walked down Anaheim Street to promote the district, which would run from Atlantic Avenue to Junipero Avenue.

San, who wore a navy blue Cambodia Town Inc. hat, carried a black binder containing glossy photos of ethnic districts in the area that she hoped Cambodia Town would resemble one day: Little Saigon in Westminster and Chinatown in Los Angeles.

The corridor is lined with Cambodian-owned restaurants, bakeries, markets and auto repair shops. It is also home to a hodgepodge of Latino-owned stores and Chinese and Vietnamese businesses.

The group needed about 185 businesses of the 370 along the corridor to support the district. At first, proponents reached out to owners they knew personally, and petitions were streaming in. Then they turned to businesses owned by those outside of their community. After several years of pounding the pavement, the group had 105 businesses on board.

"We're going to be more aggressive now," San said as she marched west on Anaheim Street in the beating sun, past vacant lots and drab strip malls with signs in the Khmer language. "It doesn't matter how long it takes."

Long Beach is known as the Cambodian capital of the United States. The port city is believed to have the largest concentration of Cambodians outside the home country, with an estimated 50,000, though 2000 census figures put the number at 20,000. Most were refugees who escaped the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s that claimed the lives of nearly 2 million Cambodians. Many settled around Anaheim Street, lured by its cheap housing and growing Cambodian American community.

"In the past, no one wanted to walk down Anaheim Street because it was considered a red-light district," San said. "It's a lot safer now, but we can do more. We want it to look clean and very nice to attract more people to shop."

A few steps behind San, Paul Chorn, 25, recalled that when he was younger, he hardly ventured onto Anaheim Street because of crime. But now he is proud that many Cambodian businesses have transformed the corridor into a safer, thriving area.

Chorn said the district would mean something more for his people. "With this designation, we can show that we are not people stuck in the era of genocide," he said. "We progressed for the better."

Chorn, San and several others walked into a strip mall at Anaheim and Orange Avenue. It was the third time the group had tried to get business owners in the plaza to sign the petition. Owners of a Cambodian supermarket, two restaurants, a design store and a video store have already signed up, but the group still needed the support of an Eastern herbal store, a dentist, a sandwich shop, a jewelry store and a pharmacy.

Chorn and several others walked into a pharmacy.

Michael Saing, 25, explained to Ben Mai, whose wife is a pharmacist there, why the group wanted a business improvement district.

Mai, who is Vietnamese, said he understood. "I come from Orange County, and when I drive down Bolsa [Avenue] in Little Saigon, you can see there's a lot there," he said. "For you Cambodians, you have a big community, but you don't have something to represent you."

Saing said it took 15 years to get Little Saigon started. "You have to start somewhere," he said.

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