This article was originally published on the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development website.
In the City Heights section of San Diego, El Cajon Boulevard is a work in process. On any given day, more than 35 different languages and dialects can be heard in the community. That may even be an understatement, as more than 60 percent of residents of the area are foreign born. As one of the country’s largest refugee resettlement areas, it truly is an international village.
In our work in helping to create a quality-of-life plan for Colina Park, one of 16 neighborhoods that comprise City Heights, community residents and other stakeholders identified the importance of El Cajon Boulevard due to its history, physical proximity, existing market and future opportunities.
Today, we’re deeply invested in building on this community asset and strengthening it. The process has brought together many local partners. Together we’re learning the importance of a clear understanding the community assets and untapped market potential—and creating a smart strategy tailored to El Cajon Boulevard’s diversity of culture and countries.
Regional strength and opportunity
In order to advance a pathway for both places and people to prosper, it is necessary for us to better connect neighborhood need with regional strength and opportunity. One such possibility for lower-income neighborhoods like City Heights is the investment in our commercial corridors. In particular, strategies designed and developed to better support small businesses within those areas.
Our neighborhoods must not remain islands at the end of the day. If we want our neighborhood economies to improve then we also need to better connect them to the larger economy via the delivery or exporting of goods and services. That takes both an investment in human and financial capital.
For community developers, there is a part and role for us to play in that work.
Our entrance into commercial corridor work was through the Building Sustainable Communities platform (Neighborhoods First). El Cajon Boulevard was already sharing its rich culture with locals through the diverse restaurants and shops. The quality-of-life plan showed that there was a strong interest in further promoting business development along the corridor as a destination point and creating ethnic business clusters.
A market study prepared by LISC MetroEdge validated the importance of the trade area, not just to the local economy, but beyond the neighborhood economy as well. People outside the community were coming in, shopping and eating in a so-called “food oasis.” The trade area that includes El Cajon Boulevard has an estimated $100 million generated annually in food and beverage sales.
The fact that the boulevard has plenty of potential customers was also recognized. The area’s “purchasing/buying power” was found to be three times greater than the equivalent typical City square mile, at $173 million.
What we’ve learned
A core team that includes business owners, a business improvement district, refugee resettlement agency, two ethnic-based cultural and business organizations, and a CDC are now focused on El Cajon Boulevard.
The folks are being intentionally strategic about their vision and efforts in creating an international village or a destination point for customers to experience, explore and celebrate City Heights’ diversity.
Here are some of our key findings and guideposts for the future:
  • The team recognizes that they can not just cater to any “one type” of constituency/customer. Their current success already speaks to this fact and provides inspiration to expand the existing customer base 
  • An international destination point requires additional touch points, participation and perspectives to expand a diverse customer base. Some of these pieces include the development of African Restaurant Week and the development of an Asian–Night Market, a kind of neighborhood fair with booths for food, crafts, specialty drinks, clothing, etc.
  • The team has integrated its efforts as part of a larger economic development strategy. Sometimes moving beyond neighborhood and community boundaries might mean more success for those neighborhoods. To grow businesses and the market, the team needs to engage new partners and build bridges with the larger regional economy.
  • The team recognizes the need to constantly expand. They need not only new partners, but different ones in terms of expertise and resources to help them with this effort.
  • Economics, or in this case neighborhood economics, helps drive opportunity. We look forward to the future of El Cajon Boulevard. Please watch us as we grow.
(It the meantime, enjoy watching this video about our work.)
Joseph Horiye, former Executive Director of San Diego LISC, is an independent consultant whose work focuses on impact, improvement, and innovation of people and place.