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immigrant entrepreneurs fuel revival of cincinnati's short vine district

Gary Chen Chan
Gary Chen Chan
What’s the magic that makes redevelopment transform one neighborhood and not another?

Terry Chan has mulled over this question for a good many years. In his international high school in Hong Kong, he thought about it as friends from China recounted tales of fleeing Indonesia amid economic unrest.  At Carnegie Mellon, he studied finance, IT and urban planning. He researched Hong Kong’s uneasy transition back into China and the Butterfly Effect, or how one small event in one place can lead to a large change elsewhere. He worked for several Fortune 500 companies before moving to Cincinnati to invest in real estate close to his in-laws. And throughout this journey of learning and understanding how business and development works, he continues to revisit that question, “Why does money flow in some places and not in others?”  

With the Short Vine Innovation District, Chan hopes to answer that question. Far more than just a real estate redevelopment project for Short Vine, this venture is creating a technological hub of early-stage, vibrant businesses. In a twist on the American dream, the district is funded in part by immigrants investing in promising startups. Members of this new brand of community share talents and support one another while generating energy with local business incubators and a neighboring university’s classrooms, laboratories and bright, young minds.   

Short Vine is home to Chan’s family. Two decades ago, father-in-law Marty Angiulli opened Martino’s Italian Restaurant at 2618 Vine, in the middle of the streetscape just east of the University of Cincinnati.  Over the years, he purchased the entire block. With Angiulli as one of its partners, the Short Vine Entertainment District has recently added more buildings across and down the street, including a parking garage. With the completion of a Hampton Inn & Suites north on Vine, the City of Cincinnati’s ongoing street and sidewalk improvements and an upcoming renovation of the Kroger store at Short Vine’s south end, the block is primed and ready to welcome Chan’s vision of lasting urban renewal.

“In a place like Cincinnati, without a real estate bubble like in some other places, it’s the tenants that drive the value of real estate,” Chan says. “If we knew that, say, P&G wanted this property and was willing to move in under a 100-year lease, this place would be worth so much more.”  You haven’t changed spaces, just increased interest and a sense of permanence.  

Chan and his core team – Matt Kappers, Nathan Hammond, Martin Lawler and Paul Sommers — have set out to make Short Vine more interesting to a diverse range of businesses for added stability. A restaurant group offers dining and entertainment space to tenants, with management help from the Short Vine Innovation District to lessen the inherent risk in food service. With CincyTech as a partner, Short Vine is also opening its doors to young companies ready for their second burst of investment and support.  

“So,” says Chan, “now we have office tenants in our real estate, eating lunch at the restaurants, parking in the garage, socializing on the block and spilling into our other investments.”

Being right next door to a large research institution offers a myriad of benefits for startups being wooed by Chan’s team. Jaydev Karande is the founder of Wearcast, one of those downtown CincyTech seed companies that recently moved to Short Vine. “Being this close to UC gives us ways to test concepts, engage students, find interns and get smart talent,” Karande says. “Look at Cincinnati; it’s pretty conservative in terms of employment.”  Start-ups value fresh, young minds, sometimes more than experience.   

The Short Vine Innovation District also supports startups like Karande’s with its Source Lab. Gary Chan, Terry’s brother, explains. “We have different people with different expertise — web designers and developers, software engineers, product managers – who can build a product.” Wearcast might need an on-call, not full-time, web designer, so it contracts with Source Lab for exactly the amount of work it wants and avoids over-hiring. “We cater to this start-up community.”
Partnership with the UC Technology Commercialization Accelerator will add more innovative businesses to Short Vine. With a goal of 12 to 18 companies on Short Vine within two years, the neighborhood will see cutting-edge technology rolling out of the university and into startup companies along the street, creating new jobs and bringing economic vitality to the neighborhood and the region.

But all of this dreaming takes funding to become reality. In a twist on this country’s immigrant story, Chan and his team are using a little-known, highly-regulated federal program called EB-5 to attract foreign investment to Short Vine. The program’s requirements are few but challenging: an investment in this country of $500,000 and the creation of 10 jobs in two years. If those requirements are met, immigrant investors, their spouses and children under 21 can apply for green cards without restrictions.   

To foreign investors with good savings and ambitious families, EB-5 offers the chance for American citizenship. Short Vine has found that 90 percent of its investors are families. Says Chan, “They are doing this for their kids. This isn’t just money. To questions like, ‘Will this become a Chinatown with all these Chinese investors?’ I say, ‘This has nothing to do with China itself. If the money were in Kenya, we’d be there recruiting it. These investors are injecting a lot of money into our economy, creating permanent jobs and becoming permanent residents who pay taxes.’  And their 10 employees are paying taxes, too.”

Because the EB-5 program is focused on job creation, startup companies find that they can be more creative with the funding in attracting and keeping employees.

Sameer Munger is CEO and co-founder of Zipscene at 2712 Vine, another startup helped by foreign investment through the Short Vine Innovation District. “We’ve only been here since February, and they did everything to prepare for us; we just showed up with our computers,” he says. “As a startup, you’re pretty strapped, so for them to take on the space, design and furnish it, was one less thing for us to do.”

Karande sees employee benefits. “If there is good investment, startups have more money than you would think and can offer competitive salaries.”

Presently, Short Vine has 54,000 square feet of office space and twice the demand; it holds 20,000 square feet of retail space and a current demand for three times that amount of space. “This time next year,” Chan predicts, “we should have every space filled.”

This renaissance of a once-blighted streetscape is a quirky and clever combination of local and international players, wide-open to new ideas and balanced by diversity and attentive support. Is this the answer to Chan’s persistent question about redevelopment?

Talent, energy and time will tell.
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