Great Neck Plaza is the latest Long Island community looking to breathe new life into its downtown business district, and merchants there say courting the village's growing Asian population might be the key to success.
Business owners have launched efforts in recent months to attract Asian residents, hoping those customers will help grow sales, increase foot traffic and boost visibility in a downtown corridor with several empty storefronts. Merchants said Asian residents make use of downtown stores, but haven't become regular customers and that has to change.
“If we’re going to have a strong downtown, then our stores and our businesses need to attract and engage our base, which means engaging our Chinese neighbors," said Ron Edelson, executive director of the village's business improvement district, which represents about 250 Great Neck Plaza businesses.
Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants, mainly Chinese, represent the second-largest population group in Great Neck Plaza behind whites. Chinese have flocked to the area because of Great Neck's top-ranked schools as well as the parks and libraries, resident Dorothy Feng said. She also cited the village's proximity to the large Asian community in Flushing, Queens.
“A lot of the Great Neck Chinese family profile is either a business owner or young professionals who work in the city,” Feng said. Many take the LIRR to Flushing because “it’s 15 minutes away and people like to go there and hang out with their friends and eat some authentic Chinese food.”
The Asian population in Great Neck Plaza has steadily grown between 2012 and 2017, according to the most recent census data. Within that growth, most of the influx has been Chinese, but there are also Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese residents. The Chinese population grew to 472 in 2017 from 123 in 2012, census data show. In neighboring Great Neck, there were 668 Chinese residents in 2017 according to census data, up from 286 residents in 2012.
The Census defines Asian as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent."
Villages near Great Neck Plaza, including Kensington and Kings Point, also have rising Asian populations. The Great Neck school district, which became the first on Long Island to recognize Chinese Lunar New Year as a school holiday in 2016, has a 6,438-student population where more than a third of students are Asian.
In June, business district leaders asked the Great Neck Chinese Association if any members would perform during the September street festival. The association, founded in 1995 to promote understanding among cultures, added 40 Chinese musical and dance performers to the festival, attracting about 400 Asian residents to the annual event, Edelson said.
"From there we said to them [the Chinese Association], 'what else can we do together?' " Edelson said.
During last month's Chinese Lunar New Year, the district hung about 70 Chinese lanterns on lamp posts along Bond Street, Middle Neck Road, and North Station Plaza to let Asian residents know "we want to embrace you and interact with you, and we know this is a big part of your culture, so we want to celebrate it with you," Edelson said.
Mandy Xiao of Great Neck said the effort was appreciated.
“Everybody was so surprised,” Xiao said. “Some people even posted on their Instagram saying, ‘I feel like I’m back in China in my hometown.' ”
Xiao and Feng said Chinese residents are eager shoppers who are open to becoming regulars in Great Neck Plaza, but one secret is for businesses to reach them on WeChat and WhatsApp instead of posting on Facebook.
The business district in February launched a shopper's card that gives Asian residents discounts when they shop at participating downtown stores. About 1,000 cards were mailed out and more than 30 stores participate in the program.
"I've had three people use them so far," said David Kadosh, owner of the Verizon Wireless store on Middle Neck Road. "We're getting more exposure and we're getting more foot traffic. People are coming shopping in the neighborhood."
Other business owners said it's too early to measure the effectiveness of the card program and they're willing to do more than offer a discount to attract new customers.
"The biggest problem we're going to have is getting the Asian population to feel comfortable and feeling like we can help them," said Philip Meltzer, an optometrist who owns Spectacles of Great Neck. "And that's on us. The most important thing is for us to adapt to them."