Vietnamese fusion restaurant one part of Washington Square transformation

When the Vietnamese fusion restaurant Pho on the Block opens to customers in the spring of 2017 it will be one more sign the effort that has gone into bringing the commercial center of the Edison neighborhood back from years of decline is working.

Through the years, Washington Square has gone from the bustling heart of the neighborhood adjacent to Kalamazoo's downtown to a place where perceived issues with crime and safety halted the will of private developers to invest there. The city's move years ago to eliminate an adult entertainment club and bookstore there did not prove to be the incentive for change that city leaders had hoped it would. 

To reverse those attitudes the Land Bank and its partners got to work creating events and attracting new businesses that would slowly turn around the area. A music store, a submarine sandwich shop, and a credit union are part of the new mix of businesses reviving the once-dormant retail hub. Renovated residential offerings above storefronts, a hair salon, a nutrition store, and a home for belly dance are all transforming the block.

For three years, Kalamazoo County Land Bank and its partners have brought events, new shops, and activities to Washington Square as a way to entice the community at large to explore what is happening there. During that time there have been about 12 events--some Art Hop related and others with special holiday themes--that each drew between 100 to 300 people to Portage Street to celebrate art and entertainment, eat, and interact with the Edison community.  

The opening of Pho on the Block will add an international spice to the neighborhood soup now bubbling at Washington Square. The new restaurant's signature item is pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup made of noodles and other fresh ingredients in an aromatic broth that has been gaining in national popularity over the past several years. (Bon appettit says in its wrap-up of coolest restaurant trends that the yummy noodle soup went mainstream in 2016.)

More than $200,000 was invested in the renovation of the space at 1301 Portage St., on the corner of Washington Avenue and Portage Street in the Edison neighborhood where Pho on the Block will be located. The Kalamazoo County Land Bank, City of Kalamazoo, the Jim Gilmore Jr. Foundation, the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, Michigan Municipal League, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation, and Fifth Third Bank Foundation all contributed funding to the project. The restaurant will fill the last empty retail space on the block on the east side of Portage Street. 

But Kelly Clarke, executive director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, says the work has never been solely about 1301 Portage Street. "It's about the people. Not the building. We're working with the Edison neighborhood to create a place where people can shop, and play, and learn. That's our intent. This is not about getting tenants for the sake of getting tenants.”

If it were, the neighborhood might be changing a lot faster than it has been but with less community buy-in. At the special events in the neighborhood residents and attendees provided referrals and ideas, participated in art installation projects, purchased goods from vendors and took in performances—all part of building goodwill in Edison. Instead of moving quickly, the Land Bank has worked throughout to include the neighborhood in decisions as it tries to ensure the proposed new developments are inclusive and supportive of the mixed income and racially diverse urban neighborhood. Edison, located on the east side of the city,  is the most populous neighborhood in Kalamazoo and is home to the bulk of the city's Hispanic population. 

The changes coming to Washington Square are intended to celebrate the many cultures of the neighborhood and what they have in common. Events at Washington Square have featured African Dance, Middle Eastern Dance, and even a Scottish bagpiper.  

At the most recent Art Hop, participants in the Zoomba class offered at Kalamazoo Nutricion had a dance-off with the young people from the Boys and Girls Club making for what Clarke describes as a joyful evening of celebration where people were "making cross-cultural connections.”

That kind of approach helped when it came time to judge the participants in the Fare Games competition. "The Edison residents were some of the most excited about being able to offer something different, having an opportunity to experience another cultural cuisine, and to interact with another business that represents the multiculturalism that has been celebrated here."

When asked if they thought a Vietnamese restaurant would be a good fit, residents were enthusiastic supporters of the restaurant. 

The Fare Games competition was as much about engaging the community and generating excitement as it was about identifying a food based business for a vacant and underutilized space, says Clarke. Food-based entrepreneurs were invited to compete for the opportunity to start or relocate their business to the space. The prize package includes a three-year lease that starts out low and gradually increases, and business services worth more than $30,000.

Applicants provided small bites at a summer Art Hop and the community was able to provide input on the businesses and menus that the food business owners could incorporate into their final proposals.  A committee including neighborhood residents made the final selection on the food based establishment.  

The winners Reggie Kaur and Nancy Tien are currently working with Miller-Davis Company to customize the space to fit their needs. The 1,300-square foot space will be turned into a restaurant that seats 42. It previously has been the site of a drug store and a bank.  

“We were delighted with the community’s positive response to the competition and the overall quality of the applications submitted,"  says Fare Games committee chair Becky Fulgoni. "It was a hard decision, but the committee was unanimous in its praise for Pho on the Block’s vision for the space, the strength of their business plan, and, of course, the deliciousness of the food we sampled.”

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
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