Can Chinatown Tax Its Way To More Tourists?

Chinatown gate with tour bus
A tour bus passes through the Chinatown gate on Wentworth Avenue in November 2016. Andrew Gill / WBEZ
Chinatown gate with tour bus
A tour bus passes through the Chinatown gate on Wentworth Avenue in November 2016. Andrew Gill / WBEZ

Can Chinatown Tax Its Way To More Tourists?

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A fight is brewing in Chicago’s Chinatown over how to boost the neighborhood profile for tourism — a goal some residents believe will be critical to the area’s continued success.

The debate comes at a time when the South Side neighborhood has garnered attention for its population boom and civic improvements.

According to U.S. Census data, Chicago’s Chinatown saw a population growth as Asian immigrants declined in Chinatowns across the country.

In Chicago, the ethnic enclave has remained relatively affordable, even while adding neighborhood enhancements such as an architectural award-winning library, a new boat house and field house for sports.

The Chinatown branch of the Chicago Public Library has won awards for its architecture. (WBEZ/Andrew Gill)

Some community members, though, want the neighborhood to look more like big cities in China.

Robert Hoy, a semi-retired attorney who grew up in Chinatown, has an old postcard of Wentworth Avenue, the original commercial strip of Chinatown. Then, as now, it was filled with restaurants and gift shops. But the old image shows it during a glitzier era.

“This is 1962 Chinatown,” he said. “Do you see that? Neon signs. See that? All lighted up, cars on the street. Now, you come tonight and you take a look at Chinatown (and) it won’t look anything like this.”

Robert Hoy, who grew up in Chinatown, shows off an old postcard of Wentworth Avenue, Chinatown's original commercial strip. (Odette Yousef/WBEZ)

Hoy, whose family owned businesses on Wentworth Avenue, said Chinatown was buzzing with neon and life at night — but that’s faded away.

His dream is one that others share, too.

“I’d love to have Chinatown look more like it does in Asia, in Hong Kong where at night it’s all lit up, kind of like an old-style Las Vegas,” said Darryl Tom, an attorney and leader of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

But while the two men may share a common vision for where Chinatown should go, they’re on opposing sides when it comes to how to get there. The rift is over whether property owners in Chinatown’s main commercial area should levy an additional tax on themselves for services that could pull more tourists into their businesses.

The question came to a head at a City Council Finance Committee hearing in late October, where aldermen were slated to create a special taxing district in Chinatown. The plan would allow the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce to collect an annual fee from property owners in the proposed district, and to spend that money on infrastructure and aesthetic improvements within the boundaries.

The Chamber estimates the additional $161,755 raised through the tax would aid in trash cleanup, snow removal, marketing, security and aesthetic enhancements to benefit the areas that tourists visit.

These types of taxing districts, which are also known as special service areas, exist all over Chicago, including in Greektown, Andersonville and parts of Devon Avenue.

But some property and business owners in Chinatown pleaded with aldermen on the committee to halt the plan.

“We are completely overwhelmed with the amount of taxes and expenses that we have right now,” said Pat Chan, who said her family owns a business in Chinatown Square. “We are already working 365 days out of the year with no vacation time. Some places are working 14- to 15-hour days… How is that a quality of life if all we’re doing is working to pay taxes?”

Chan and some other opponents said they worry passing the tax increase to their customers will undercut one of the very reasons many people shop in Chinatown: low prices. But others said they believe the fund will restore the neighborhood to something that is more attractive, safe and ultimately appealing to tourists.

“I approve and support the (special service areas) even though I have to pay more money, because I own five properties in Chinatown,” said Raymond Lee. “At least make it decent so the tourists continue to come to Chinatown. Because it’s very heavy traffic on Saturday and Sunday.”

Looking north on Wentworth Avenue in Chinatown in November 2016. (WBEZ/Andrew Gill)

But Hoy says he doesn’t see a connection between services like snow removal or new streetlights, which the tax would fund, and the ultimate goal of attracting more tourists. He said he cannot support an additional local tax levy without hearing some concrete milestones on what it would achieve.

“How many tourist buses are you going to bring in here?” he said. “How much is it going to cost? And as any business talks about, what’s your customer acquisition costs?”

Walking down Wentworth Avenue, Hoy pointed out a pet peeve: There were no trash cans.

The chamber’s proposal would finance the purchase of 10 to 15 trash cans, but Hoy said trash removal is a municipal service, and it should fall to the city. Hoy argued the chamber should lobby on Chinatown’s behalf for its fair share of resources instead of imposing an extra tax on local businesses.

“They’re going to be the voice of the entrepreneur,” he said, “But see, they’re not.”

A man pushes a trashcan on wheels in Chinatown in November 2016. (WBEZ/Andrew Gill)

But Tom said Chicago has been throwing money at Chinatown.

“Starting with the field house and the pool that a lot of people were fighting for a long time,” he said.

Those amenities were won through grassroots community organizing and a show of unity among Chinatown stakeholders. Tom said unity appears to have dissipated when it comes to the proposed taxing district.

“Now it’s a question of people’s pocketbooks and own interests,” he said.

Tom acknowledged the timing of the proposal is poor, given that Chicago recently raised property taxes and water assessment fees. But he said if Chinatown wants to control its own destiny, it’s time to reach into its own pockets.

Chicago’s finance committee will reconsider the local tax proposal in December.

Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.