Recession, Tourism Dropoff Hurt Neighborhood's Growth

Spotlight on Little Tokyo

By DEBORAH BELGUM
Staff Reporter

Inside the Yokohama Okadaya department store, a gaggle of dark-haired sales ladies is arranging and rearranging Gucci bags and designer scarves as they patiently wait for Japanese tourists or any tourists to walk through the door.

They may be waiting for some time.

"Things are very bad," said Yoshiko Takahashi, a supervisor at the Little Tokyo store next to the New Otani Hotel and Garden. "The Japanese tourists are not coming here right now. And if some people do come from Japan, they never buy any merchandise because they have a small budget."

All of which has been a jolt to Little Tokyo, the downtown neighborhood bounded by Temple and Fourth streets to the north and south, and Alameda and Los Angeles streets to the east and west.

The post-Sept. 11 falloff in travelers made big tour groups even rarer. About the only Japanese traveling these days are younger tourists, and they aren't coming in large groups or spending as much.

"Little Tokyo took a double whammy," said Brian Kito, whose family owns the Fugetsu-Do confectionery shop at 315 E. 1st St. "Tourists were one thing, but the people working for the tour agencies were our customers too. The employees laid off at the hotels added to our economy too."

Occupancy rates at the New Otani and nearby Miyako Inn are well below 50 percent, their lowest levels in years and not even close to the industry's 60 percent break-even point. The Miyako Inn has closed its second-floor dining room for lunch and dinner.

With the falloff in travel, Kito said sales are off about 20 percent at the store his family has owned for 99 years.

As if a drop in tourism wasn't enough, Little Tokyo's location right across from Parker Center, the Los Angeles Police Department's headquarters has added another layer to its economic woes.

The day after the terrorist attacks, white concrete barricades were installed on Los Angeles and San Pedro streets. The resulting traffic obstruction created a serious economic crunch for numerous businesses, among them the non-profit East West Players theater.

"It has been quite a challenge," said Al Choy, managing director of the 36-year-old company. "The last show we presented, called 'Red,' that started on Sept. 27, was probably the most positively received play in our history. But our attendance was down 30 percent. We tried all kinds of things to get people in here: special ticket prices, special marketing and promotions. It seemed like nothing worked."

Poor attendance meant a 35 percent drop in the theater's season ticket sales. In addition, almost all of the corporate and foundation support it had received 25 percent of the theater's $1.3 million annual budget was diverted to charities offering aid to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, Choy said.

"We already cut our budget by 10 percent for this fiscal year, but we have been cutting it another 25 percent," Choy said.

The falloff is being felt across the board, and community leaders are trying to attract customers from surrounding communities not only the Japanese-Americans, but non-Asians who enjoy Japanese cuisine and culture.

The Little Tokyo Business Association and the Japanese Restaurant Association have expanded their marketing efforts to include advertising in the Los Angeles Downtown News and other newspapers, said Nancy Kikuchi, a business counselor with the Little Tokyo Service Center's Community Development Corp.

The Los Angeles Community Development Agency has provided $10,000 grants for new businesses moving into the area, according to Don Spivack, the CRA's deputy administrator.

So far two firms have applied for the grants.

The CRA also is working with a Buddhist temple to build 100 units of affordable housing, and undertaking a million-dollar restoration of the Far East Caf & #233;, a Little Tokyo landmark that has been empty since the 1994 earthquake.

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