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New businesses follow refugees settling in Buffalo neighborhoods

The Burmese community on the West Side was growing fast, but there wasn’t a market that sold Burmese food items. So Khin Maung Soe opened Lin Asian Market on Grant Street in 2010.

The city’s latest wave of Asian refugees has been settling in Black Rock-Riverside, so Soe opened his second location and a restaurant on Tonawanda Street in December.

“We came here because there are a lot of people from Burma, Nepal, Bhutan living here now, but there was no Asian food stores or restaurants for them,” he said.

Buffalo saw a 70 percent increase in its foreign-born population from 2000 to 2010, and each year it grows by 1,400 as more refugees are resettled in the city from trouble spots in Asia and Africa, according to census figures. Immigrants accounted for 8 percent of Buffalo residents in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The influx has been accompanied by an explosion of businesses. In recent years, more than a dozen new businesses – from restaurants to a computer sales and repair store – have opened on Grant Street, reviving the long-dormant business district. And the majority of these storefronts are owned by refugees and immigrants who have made the Grant-Ferry district their home.

“Five years ago, Grant Street was empty,” said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, a not-for-profit organization that helps refugees and immigrants. “But Grant is now a draw, people see Grant as a good investment. There’s a power of attraction; there’s a market there. It’s very exciting.”

As the city’s foreign-born population continues to surge and spill into other neighborhoods, the belief is that new businesses will follow, like Soe’s food market and restaurant in Black Rock-Riverside.

Soe’s friends are now searching for storefronts on Tonawanda Street for a variety of businesses, including a liquor store and manicure salon.

“Tonawanda Street will be like Grant Street with many businesses,” he declared.

Linda Chiarenza, executive director of the West Side & Black Rock-Riverside Neighborhood Housing Services, would love to see that happen. Tonawanda Street, not as long as Grant, boasts Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Riverside Park, but has greatly declined the past few decades. Two years ago, the housing agency helped a Burmese family buy a house, and that ignited the influx of Burmese refugees to the neighborhood. Today, 40 percent of the agency’s 500 clients are from Burma, Chiarenza said, adding that residential and commercial growth are inseparable.

“If people see new businesses – a restaurant here and store there – coming to a community, they’ll be interested in moving there,” she said. “We hope to attract more businesses.”

To do so, the organization is offering a $1,000 façade grant to qualified new businesses. In addition to Soe’s two new businesses, the owners of Lucy’s Ethiopian Cuisine on the corner of Amherst and Grant streets are opening two new businesses kitty-corner from Soe’s on Tonawanda Street – a larger second location and an Ethiopian spice store – early next year.

“It’s a quiet area, but I think it has potential,” said Abba Sibay, owner of Lucy’s. Additionally, WEDI, the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, which aids West Side entrepreneurs, will hire an employee from the Black Rock area to work with the residents there on ventures to further accelerate business development.

Leaders in other neighborhoods are excited as they anticipate transformations like Grant Street for their business districts as immigrants begin to take up residence.

“We’re certainly hopeful,” said Stephen Kapernath, executive director of Broadway-Fillmore Neighborhood Housing Services. “We are starting to see some signs,” pointing to a building on Gibson Street, off Broadway, that was recently rehabilitated to become a temple for the Vietnamese community, which will be a draw for other Vietnamese to move in. The Broadway-Fillmore NHS is teaming up with the International Institute to help remove obstacles to newcomers to the neighborhood who are interested in entrepreneurial pursuits.

“We’re on the front end of this process,” Kapernath said.

A growing Bangladeshi community is also taking hold in the Broadway-Fillmore district, and immigrants from that Asian country are starting to make a mark in the Broadway Market. Zillar Rahman already operates a dried foods stand in the market, and he’ll expand his business this year to start selling halal meats.

“There are a lot more immigrants who are Muslim moving to this area, and they will come and shop,” he said.

Some of those newcomers are interested in being vendors in the market. One of Rahman’s friends, also a Bangladeshi immigrant, will open a halal restaurant in February. Another Bangladeshi vendor is thinking about renting space to sell doughnuts. And a third vendor will begin selling airline tickets next month.

Kathy Peterson, the manager of the market, said space inquiries from Bangladeshi immigrants have increased substantially in the past year. She said the increased interest will only add to the diversity of the market’s offerings and, ultimately, bring more customers.

“I think it’s great because we really see ourselves as an international market,” she said.