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B.C. strip mall owner rejects claims of racism October 19, 2006

Posted by C.A.R.D in Card, Citizens Against Racism and Discrimination, Racism, Racist, Rejects.

VANCOUVER — The owners of a B.C. strip mall who are facing allegations of racism over their refusal to renew the leases of three longtime tenants say it’s not personal, it’s business.Stanford Plaza Inc., owner of the slice of suburban life known as West Willow Shopping Centre in Surrey, B.C., denies it is methodically evicting non-Asian businesses to make way for a mall targeting the Asian community.

“This has been made into a discrimination issue when it was really just a business issue,” Annette Blenkarn, a spokeswoman for Stanford Plaza said.

“Any new owner coming into the company would have done the exact same thing.”

Rumours of a shakeup began when Stanford secured H-Mart, an American-based Korean grocery chain, as the anchor tenant for the plaza, which had been floundering since the last major retailer pulled out six months ago.

Then, the owners of an insurance brokerage, beauty salon and framing gallery were told their leases weren’t being renewed.

Lynne Wallace’s store, Frames-West Gallery had been in the mall for 24 years.

Wallace said when she was told her lease wasn’t being renewed, she immediately offered to hire Korean staff and change the decor to appeal to the type of client she believed the mall was trying to attract.

She also offered the owners $100,000 to stay in her location through 2009, when she had hoped to retire.

When they ignored her offers, she began to believe it was about race.

“So it’s not about money, it’s not about me hiring a Korean girl, it’s not about me making my store appealing to the Asian market,” Wallace said, her voice breaking. “There can be no other reason for them to ask me to leave.”

Blenkarn said her offers to hire Korean staff and change the decor were non-starters, as Wallace wasn’t asked to leave because she isn’t Asian. Wallace’s financial offer wasn’t market value for the space and the company felt it could do better.

As far as the other two tenants, Blenkarn said the salon was consistently behind on rent and the insurance brokerage had an exclusivity clause on the lease that didn’t fit with the plaza’s future plans to bring in a financial institution.

Blenkarn said the mall has been struggling for years and the company is focused on rebuilding.

All three evicted tenants have filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Commission, though Wallace admitted it doesn’t change the fact that she and the others have to move.

One retail analyst said he wouldn’t accuse the company of racism, but of bad business sense.

There is a major lesson that can be learned by both Stanford and existing tenants, said David Gray of Sixth Line Solutions.

“How do we do a better job serving the Korean market so that they don’t feel the need to shop in this one place,” said Gray. “And how do we show these guys that they are making a huge business mistake aiming at a tiny niche when in fact they should be serving the market they are located in?”

There are a dozen other tenants in the plaza and several contacted said they haven’t heard anything about a major change in focus for the mall.

“I feel bad for the businesses that aren’t having their leases renewed,” said Karam Kler, owner of Fast Fit and Firm Fitness. “But this has been a dead plaza for two years. We need the business coming in here.”

H-Mart is expected to open later this year.

June Lee, the project manager for H-Mart, said the argument that the entire mall would cater to the Korean or even the larger Asian community makes no sense because there isn’t enough of a population base to support it.

The plaza straddles the Langley-Surrey boundary, two cities southeast of Vancouver experiencing explosive growth.

Statistics Canada estimates there about 5,000 Koreans in Surrey and less than 1,000 in Langley. The largest Asian group in both cities is Chinese.

The number of people of Asian descent in those cities pales in comparison with Richmond, B.C., where several Asian-themed shopping centres have been built deliberately over the last 10 years.

About 60 per cent of Richmond’s population are members of a visible minority, with the largest share being Chinese.

The first mall, Aberdeen, was initially conceived as being a place where East met West, said Gray.

“Vancouver could be a total retail model city for how communities can come together,” he said. “We can all learn from each other, it’s not that farfetched.”

Source: CTV.ca

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