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Little Saigon Protests Take Economic Toll

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The anti-communist protests in Little Saigon, now in their second month and seemingly growing in numbers, are exacting a heavy economic toll on the city of Westminster and numerous Vietnamese businesses that only recently emerged from a prolonged slump.

Westminster officials estimate that police and other costs related to the impassioned rallies, including sales and tax revenue losses, already have reached hundreds of thousands of dollars. Police overtime expenses alone have surpassed $100,000, Westminster Police Lt. Bill Lewis said.

“It’s bleeding us to death,” Mayor Frank Fry Jr. said.

While the protests have been mostly peaceful, the crowds have so swelled that Westminster has called on help from nearly every police agency in the county. On Monday night, the largest gathering yet, 10,000 Vietnamese Americans converged on Bolsa Avenue to protest video store owner Truong Van Tran’s adamant display of tribute to Communist Vietnam.

City officials have yet to add up the financial damage from the demonstrations, but that will certainly include loss of sales tax revenue from Little Saigon merchants whose business has withered in recent days. The two-mile area of more than 2,000 businesses contributes almost a half-million dollars in sales tax revenue annually to the city.

But some of the Vietnamese store owners, especially those in and near the protest epicenter, say their sales in recent days have shrunk to near zero because customers are in no mood to shop there and can’t find parking spots anyway.

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“I don’t know how long I can hold on,” fretted Kinh Nguyen, 55, whose print shop has been among the hardest hit because it sits in the same shopping center where Tran’s video store is located.

Protests have often punctuated life and commerce in politically sensitive Little Saigon, which caters to the estimated 200,000 Vietnamese Americans in Orange County--the world’s largest Vietnamese exile community.

But the latest rancor comes at a particularly fragile time, when Little Saigon is showing signs of improving business and is launching a concerted effort to increase awareness of the community and attract outside tourists.

“This will pull us backward,” said Co Pham, president of the Vietnamese-American Chamber of Commerce, which is a block away from the rallying.

Pham himself was the target of anti-communist protests in 1994 when he organized a trade delegation to Vietnam after the United States lifted its long economic sanctions against that country. Another protest followed after relations between the two countries were formally reestablished.

Pham said he did not think the latest upheaval would cause irreparable harm to Little Saigon’s image, as some fear it may.

“In the U.S., we forgive and forget very quickly,” he said. “But in the short run, it will bring down our economy.”

Little Saigon Had Just Begun Struggling Back

Little Saigon has been struggling because of a glut of stores and demographic changes, including the sharp slowdown in refugee arrivals. But recently, the strong Orange County economy has helped the fortunes of Vietnamese American workers and consumers. The Vietnamese chamber’s 1999 business directory is more than 600 pages thick, and executive director Lynn Dangtu said she does not see the protests dampening activity.

In fact, she said, “I think this may promote business. It’s just making more awareness of Little Saigon.” She believes that many will come out of curiosity.

The chamber, she said, is remaining neutral on the protests, though some have called on the 600-member organization to post a flag of South Vietnam before its fall to Communists. Dangtu said she had no tally of the economic damage to member businesses, but she described it as small.

Even so, there are signs that the effects from the protests are spreading outside of the epicenter in the 60-store shopping center on Bolsa Avenue at Bushard Street.

Frank Chin, organizer of the Tet Festival that ended over the weekend, said this year’s attendance for the Lunar New Year celebrations was a third of last year’s.

“Of course, merchants were not happy,” said Chin, a former executive at Bridgecreek, a development company in Little Saigon.

Sam Chung, owner of Tieu Chau Nam Vang restaurant a few yards from Tran’s video store, can testify to that.

Chung said that customers couldn’t park because of the demonstrations and the traffic congestion. During the busiest night of the three-day Tet Festival, he said, he sold only about 10% of the takeout barbecue he had prepared. As a result, he said, he had no choice but to throw away $4,000 to $5,000 worth of poultry.

Usually, he said, he sells 20 to 30 chickens a day for takeout. “Now I make a couple a day and I can’t even sell them,” he said.

Chung and many other merchants who have been hurt financially refused to put any of the blame on protesters. Some businesses have been supplying food to the ralliers and have been gracious in opening their shops so people can use the bathroom.

“We understand the demonstration. We don’t complain about that,” said Nguyen, the print shop owner, who has been at the shopping center since 1992. But sitting forlornly in his empty shop earlier this week--his two employees had been told to stay home--Nguyen said: “We are businessmen and we need to make money.”

For the city of Westminster as well, the economic toll is rising daily, and the biggest worry is that the protests will stretch for many days, putting even more strain on the Police Department.

As the demonstrations grew, all days off and vacations for police were canceled, Lt. Lewis said. Last Saturday, all 102 officers in the department worked, he said, and on Monday night, some 50 sheriff’s deputies helped 25 Westminster officers control crowds.

“It’s like taking a battalion of military people out into the field,” Lewis said. “You have to maintain them.”

Among the costs to the city will be expenses for setting up a command post near the protest site and establishing portable toilets. Though Westminster does not have to pay for officers from other police departments, it will have to cover the costs for the sheriff’s deputies, who have been helping out.

The Police Department accounts for almost a quarter of Westminster’s $57-million budget. City Manager Don Vestal said that thus far, the city has enough resources to weather the financial stress.

Still, he said, “it will require us to spend money that would have been available for other things.”

The financial toll from the protests is the second unexpected jolt to Westminster’s budget in recent months.

In September a 5-million-gallon water tank ruptured, flooding a condominium complex and causing up to $30 million of damage. Vestal said the city has spent or has contracted for $2.5 million of repairs so far. The city also faces costs of up to $9 million for replacing the tank. Insurance will cover some of those losses.

Times staff writer Brady MacDonald and Times correspondent Harrison Sheppard contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Controversy Cuts Into Bottom Line

Shopkeepers say they have suffered significant financial losses at the Little Saigon shopping center where a large crown maintains a vigil to protest Truon Van Tran’s communist display. How the demonstration has affected business:

Major Impact (Business down 50% or more)

Pain Control Center

Hoa Bihn Financial Services

Bolsa Dental Center

Charlie Delta Agency

Tuyet’s Fashion

Hai Au & Tinh Nho Music

Thiep Hong Printing

Phuong Nga Music

Giai-Phat Food Co.

Hi Tek TV & VCR

Comp Tek

Wireless Lines

Son-Ha Diem-Chi doctor’s office

*

Minor (Some lost business, inconvenience)

Legal Services Agency

Lumiere Photo Studio

HL Cleaners

Yen Euro. Fashion

Pose Hair Salon

Tran Family Practice

*

None (No change)

Security office

Linh’s Pharmacy

*

Improved (Protesters generating business)

Cafe Diem

Tieu Chau Nam Vang Chinese Restaurant

*

Closed early

Lumiere Photo Studio

Legal Services Agency

Yen Euro. Fashion

Sources: Individual businesses; staff reports

Graphics reporting by BRADY MacDONALD / Los Angeles Times


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