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Northland area takes on international flair as immigrant hub

Great article in this morning’s Dispatch about our community effort to Elevate Northland. #elevatenorthlandcbus

By Rita Price 
The Columbus Dispatch

Northland community advocates see the area’s large immigrant and refugee community as a key to economic revitalization. Elevate Northland, a nonprofit that recently became a Community Development Corporation, wants to help ethnic restaurants and shops draw visitors (and money) from elsewhere. City officials like the international concept.

Nandu Poudyel’s family business is tucked into one of the many strip retail centers that line main arteries in the Northland area. Fancy Store is easy to miss unless you know where to look, and fortunately for Poudyel and his brothers, plenty of people in the neighborhood’s large immigrant and refugee community do.

The next step is drawing others — and their dollars — to an economically struggling area with a vast and growing array of ethnic offerings.

“A lot of people look at (Route) 161 and say, ‘Oh, it used to have all these restaurants and so much going for it, and now it’s just a sad stretch of road,’” said Alice Foeller of the nonprofit organization Elevate Northland.

“We look at it and say, ‘Wow, there’s so much entrepreneurship here, so many restaurants from so many cultures and countries,’” she said. “It’s not Epcot. It’s real.”

Elevate Northland recently became a community development corporation, a designation that opens doors to public and private funding and declares a focus on revitalization and development.

Community development corporations were first set up in the United States during the 1960s, with housing a common emphasis. Elevate Northland wants to take a different approach: tapping into the inclination toward small-business development in areas along and around Route 161 and Morse Road, once-thriving corridors that have lost many big retailers and restaurants.

Immigrant- and refugee-run establishments are filling the void. And the offerings — exotic foods and colorful, bustling shops — are wonderful to discover, Foeller said.

“In an age where anyone can order anything they want and have it delivered by Amazon the next day, the only reason people leave their houses is for an experience,” she said. “We don’t have an artists’ community, but we have a community of refugees who have been doing their own businesses in camps for years. They’re passionate about being here and about sharing their food with others.”

Elevate Northland’s Jenny Leal said the organization is working to acquire a large building with room for small-business incubation, a food hall, event areas and other services.

“We need to bring the community together to meet the diverse needs of a diverse community,” she said. “Northland doesn’t have an anchor. We realized we have to do this ourselves — which is great, because we’ll own it.”

Franklin County is home to many immigrant communities, including the nation’s largest population of Bhutanese-Nepali refugees. Poudyel is among those who spent many years in refugee camps in Nepal before building new lives in central Ohio.

“I didn’t have any plan to start a business until I came here,” he said.

Then Poudyel and his family members “looked at all the people” and saw a need. They opened Fancy Store in the Morse Centre to bring familiar goods and foods to Bhutanese-Nepalis, West and sub-Saharan Africans and others.

The store is thriving. Its packed shelves and refrigerated cases are full of products ranging from poha (flattened rice) and Punjabi samosas to saris and Christmas lights. Poudyel said he would welcome an economic plan that can help small business owners promote themselves and address concerns.

“Unity is important,” he said. “If there is unity, we can have one voice.” 

Ram Upreti, a Bhutanese-Nepali refugee who works as a site coordinator for Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services, endured 18 years in a camp in Nepal. His family of six never had a unit larger than 18-by-11-feet.

“It was a horrible life,” said Upreti, a civil engineer by trade.

Many refugees are eager to succeed with new homes and businesses, he said, and Elevate Northland services can be a big help. He likes to say that USA stands for “U Start Again.”

Carla Williams-Scott, director of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, said officials think it’s a great idea to focus on Northland’s multicultural identity to promote economic activity. “I really like their concept,” she said.

Foeller, who grew up in the area and also heads the Northland Area Business Association, said advocates are brainstorming ways to create “an atmosphere and a buzz” to draw visitors, especially from other parts of the city and state. Place-mat maps and signs might be one way to guide people to shops and restaurants representing various ethnicities.

“It’s going to be around the New American vibe,” she said of promotions. “Columbus has way too much of a diverse immigrant population not to have an international district.”


Read the original Columbus Dispatch article here.

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