West-side group promotes ethnic eateries: Will visitors see gems among strip malls?

The Lafayette Square neighborhood is known for its aging mall and the ongoing struggle to keep tenants there and in the surrounding sea of strip centers. But some advocates want to promote a success story: the demographic diversity that has given rise to a plethora of ethnic eateries in the area.

Visitors who take a trip through some of the retail centers and outlots off West 38th Street can find the ubiquitous pizza, gyros and sushi-along with more unusual Ethiopian, Peruvian and Salvadoran cuisines.

“People think of the strip malls and that’s about it,” said Mary Clark, president of the Lafayette Square Area Coalition, an alliance of business and community leaders hoping to foster economic development in the area. “They really don’t see the beauty and the culture here.”

The coalition works to boost interest and economic development in a 2-1/2-square-mile area bounded by 34th Street on the south, Moller Road on the west, 46th Street on the north and Interstate 65/Commercial Drive on the east.

“We talk [to non-residents] about how exciting and diverse we are here and the reaction we get is, ‘Really? We didn’t know that,'” she said, adding that more than 70 languages are spoken in the area.

Affordable housing-a mix of apartments, condos and s i n g l e – fa m i l y homes-has drawn clusters of immigrant groups to the area straddling the Pike-Wayne township line. First-generation immigrants make up 8.5 percent of Pike Township’s population and 5.7 percent of Wayne Township’s.

With that in mind, the coalition is launching a marketing effort called “Taste the Difference” with help from a $5,000 grant from the Indianapolis N e i g h b o r h o o d Resource Center.

During the event, which runs Nov. 13-18, 16 restaurants in the Lafayette Square area will offer lunches costing $7 or less and dinners costing $15 or less. The coalition printed posters and fliers to drive traffic to the restaurants.

Many of the eateries are excited about the first-time joint marketing effort.

“I don’t compete with Chinese, with the other restaurants,” said Juvenal Gamarra, owner of Machu Picchu, a Peruvian restaurant at 5356 W. 38th St. “We want people to come and taste different food from all over the place.”

At Mr. Gyros at 5358 W. 38th St., the Tsoukalas family has served Greek cuisine for more than 11 years. Kiki Tsoukalas said her father started the restaurant on that side of town because “it was a very popular area and becoming very international.”

“The area worked out perfectly for us,” she said. Customers have stayed loyal to the diner as chains have moved in and out of the area, but Tsoukalas hopes the promotion will help lure newcomers who “might be afraid or hesitant” to try nonchain offerings.

Others said with high gas prices and low consumer confidence, anything that gets consumers to eat out would help.

“Anything you can do to promote your business is important,” said Jas Winder Samra, who, with her husband Sukhdev, took over India Palace at 4213 Lafayette Road in April and added new banquet space.

She said the mall doesn’t bring a lot of traffic, and construction along 56th Street has hindered some would-be diners. Still, business has improved in the last six months, and Samra has high hopes for increased traffic when a new Wal-Mart opens just north of her restaurant.

But trying to establish a united feel for the Lafayette Square area in consumers’ minds will be an uphill battle, said Steve Delaney, a principal with locally based Sitehawk Retail Real Estate.

“There isn’t really an identity for the area,” Delaney said. “It could be a difficult process to get people to believe in it and come together.”

Even so, if the effort to highlight locally owned eateries succeeds, it could help combat the vacancies that plague some of the area’s retail centers.

The neighborhood around Lafayette Square Mall is a very densely populated area with pent-up demand for more eating options, Delaney said, but commercial rents are lower than in other areas of town in part because many retail locations are older.

Area population growth is strong: up 6.2 percent in Wayne Township and 58.1 percent in Pike Township from 1990 to 2000, according to census figures. But the area’s median household income-$37,554 in Wayne and $47,250 in Pike-can’t compete with the $66,782 median income in the nearby town of Avon. As a result, many new chain stores have passed on in-fill projects along 38th Street.

Crime is another obstacle. In April, a man was found shot to death in the parking lot of the mall and another man was shot and wounded in an incident near the mall in August. These incidents followed other shootings in 2006.

When Clark tries to talk up the neighborhood to outsiders, she said they often mention crime.

“The truth is that it’s the first thing that a lot of people ask me about,” she said. “But really crime here is not as bad as the media has portrayed it to be.”

A similar effort downtown helped grow its base of restaurant supporters, said John Livengood, president of the Indiana Hospitality and Lodging Association.

The “Devour Downtown” restaurant tour, created in 2005, started with several eateries offering a week’s worth of fixed-price lunches and dinners. It has grown to become a two-week event held twice a year-in summer and winter. Thirty-two restaurants participated this summer.

That promotion helped put downtown’s foodie scene on the map, Livengood said.

“It helped us be a bigtime restaurant city,” he said. And with enough publicity, the Lafayette Square effort could have the same result, he said.

“People interested in the culinary scene will be interested and will really come out for that,” he said.

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