Drawing growth through diversity
Presence of grocer H Mart helps attract development to neighborhood
By PURVA PATEL Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Sept. 4, 2008, 11:00PM
Shoppers at Houston's largest Korean grocer, Super H Mart, can find traditional kimchi, dried shrimp and rice cakes.
But they'll also find Japanese udon, Mexican mole and American soda.
Like its Spring Branch neighborhood, H Mart's products reflect a diverse community.
In turn, it has become a magnet for other Korean businesses that don't want to rely solely on Korean customers, slowly transforming the city's unofficial Korea Town.
"The big thing was H Mart opening up in May," said Randy Sim, president of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce of Houston.
"It is a Korean grocery store, but they've got quite an international flair."
H Mart inadvertently found itself catering to everyone, said spokesman Jimmy Kim.
"You have to, to survive," Kim said. "Our strong point is fresh produce and seafood at low prices. So many Westerners come for that."
Property value catalyst
Local Korean business leaders say H Mart's arrival may be the catalyst the area needs to increase property values.
Some small businesses have already relocated from older parts of Korea Town to be closer to H Mart, part of a New Jersey-based chain with 26 stores around the country.
Community leaders estimate Houston's Korean population at about 30,000, though the latest census puts the number of Korean-born immigrants at about 10,000.
Houston pales in comparison to Dallas and Los Angeles, which have direct flights to South Korea that helped make those cities popular among Koreans.
Mimi Youn moved her gift store near Komart Marketplace, a more Korean-focused grocer on Gessner, next to H Mart on Blalock earlier this year to take advantage of its mainstream business.
Sue Kim, owner of Solomon Fine Jewelry & Luxury Goods, closed a location within a different and now-shuttered supermarket to relocate within H Mart.
"I knew H Mart would be an international shop and a good location and draw more business to the area," Kim said. "Every time H-mart opens somewhere, the area grows."
Room for growth
Signs of growth have already started down the street at 1400 Blalock, where developer John Lee has renovated an old shopping strip.
Lee, who moved to Houston from New York in search of investment opportunities, said Houston's Korea Town has room to grow as Asians move from more expensive markets in Los Angeles and New York.
"The other markets, such as Atlanta and New York, are saturated," Lee said. "Houston has a smaller Korean community but a lot of potential."
Lee plans to include Korean and mainstream businesses and hopes that a new and well-built shopping center will raise values and inspire other Koreans to build in the area.
In the past, local Korean businesses hoped to distinguish the area with Korean street signs similar to Chinese signs in Asia Town farther south. The latest push was for a sign off Interstate 10 and Gessner directing drivers to Korea Town.
But local neighborhood groups opposed the efforts.
"There's a strong diversity in our area of Hispanic, Korean and other nationalities," said Chuck Davidson, president of the Spring Branch North Super Neighborhood, a coalition of civic groups in the area.
He added that there are just as many, if not more, Hispanic businesses in the
"We didn't want to single one out. Since English is the official language, we wanted to keep it that way," he said.
A signal to investors
The interstate sign would have helped attract foreign investment, said Kristopher Ahn, a real estate attorney on Long Point and former president of the Korean chamber.
"When a foreign company, especially foreign conglomerates, wants to relocate here in Houston, there are so many different reasons they choose Los Angeles or New York, instead," Ahn said. "Houston, the fourth-largest city, is not known for its diversity as far as the Korean businesses are concerned. The signs would be a sort of welcome mat for foreign investors to come in."