Debate continues over an additional tax on Chinatown
October 6, 2017

Photo courtesy Chicago’s Chinatown Chamber of Commerce A Chinatown SSA could improve the area’s atmosphere and help business, but some residents and business owners think the tax will be too high.

By Madeline Makoul

As leaders continue improvements to strengthen Chinatown, community members continue to debate a new tax to pay for those upgrades.

Ernest Wong, president of Site Design Group Ltd. and a Chinese American Service League (CASL) board member, wrote an open letter expressing his support for implementing the long debated Special Service Area (SSA) in Chinatown. The Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce initially urged the neighborhood to support SSA in hopes of improving the area to ensure its longevity and tourism.

“Chicago’s Chinatown is the only Chinatown growing,” Wong said. “All the others in the United States are shrinking because there’s not enough investment. I believe the SSA, right now, is the only viable solution to creating a sustainable maintenance and community improvement plan.”

Having worked with chambers of commerce in other communities that have SSA districts, including Lakeview and Greektown, Wong said he has seen the benefits and wants the same for Chinatown. So, after months of community speculation on the SSA’s impact, Wong sought to dispel the rumors even while meeting opposition to the tax.

Tax’s cost

Community members have debated how much this tax actually will cost business owners in the SSA district. Wong stated it would carry an annual cost of $860 and calculated that amounts to $2.36 per day.

Daniel Ing-Hsu I. Wu, who works at Rush University Medical Center and lived in the Chinatown community for 35 years, called that estimate a “lie” that does not reflect accurately the tax burden resulting from the SSA.

The SSA’s first year budget totals around $162,000. Based on a tax rate between 0.3% and 0.8%, Wu said his calculations mean that Wong’s estimate does not add up. With some area commercial buildings worth $1 million, the tax, even at the 0.3% minimum, would amount to $3,100 annually—much greater than the $860 estimate.

“It’s a rumor spread by the Chamber of Commerce,” Wu said. “I think they try to average with some of the very small residential buildings worth a lot less. They keep lying to us and say ‘well it’s only $2 per day,’ but when they approve it they will say ‘it isn’t enough.’”

Wong said he understands the burden of another tax but believes the solution lies in business owners raising their prices slightly. A gradual increase could ease community concerns that the tax will drive people away from Chinatown, he said. To Wong, this approach should have little effect on tourists flocking to Chinatown for reasonably priced food.

“You cannot stay in the same place and let time pass you by and think you can continue to survive,” Wong said. “If you do it gradually, it becomes a lot easier to swallow than waiting until it becomes really desperate and jacking up your prices suddenly. I think that kind of shock will drive people away. But if you can do it in a gradual manner, then it becomes a lot more palatable for people.”

Hopes of improving the neighborhood

With a long career in architecture, Wong hopes cleaning up Chinatown’s aesthetics will help increase tourism, a benefit he believes will outweigh the cost of the tax greatly.

Part of what attracts people to different parts of the city is design and atmosphere, Wong said. Though Chinatown has continued to improve, Wong has noticed some areas that remain neglected, such as the old post office that now will take millions of dollars to repair.

“I’ve been doing so much work in Chinatown over the last 20 years and it has become somewhat personal to me,” Wong said. “I don’t want to see things deteriorate and get to a place where it just falls apart.”

“I’m delighted that people care enough to oppose, but my issue is, if you oppose it, you should have a solution,” Wong said. “Show me another solution that I can get behind, and I’ll support you, but it has to be a long-standing, viable solution.”

Wu believes the solution can be found outside of a tax. Instead of imposing another burden on Chinatown, Wu feels business owners can make improvements at their own businesses to enhance the customer experience. Some ideas included upgrading customer service, creating a better atmosphere with music, and increasing decorations around the holidays.

When it comes to improvements via architectural design, Wu alleged Wong will benefit personally. Wu believes Wong’s “conflict of interest” means he should stop speaking in support of the SSA.

“This SSA tax is not going to affect Ernest Wong,” Wu said. “It’s going to increase our tax, so I think he has a conflict of interest to support it. Because of the conflict of interest, he should avoid comment. He is in this interest group because he is deeply connected with the Chamber of Commerce.”

Wong countered he has done much work in Chinatown and wants the community to succeed. He serves on the board for both CASL and the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, and while he sees that some call this conflict of interest, he stressed he has nothing monetary to gain from creating an SSA in Chinatown. Instead, he has lost money through his work in Chinatown because of what he calls “a labor of love.”

When asked about the letter, Alderman Daniel Solis (25th Ward) reiterated Wong’s statements and the community benefits of an SSA.

“I think Mr. Wong’s letter illustrates the good that can come from the SSA development and tax in Chinatown,” Solis said. “I believe Mr. Wong said a mouthful when he encouraged members of the community to visit other Special Service Agency neighborhoods and see the impact an SSA can make to those in a community. By adding an SSA to the Chinatown neighborhood, we are contributing to the wellbeing of an entire community in the long term.”

Involving the community

Wu hopes the majority of Chinatown residents’ voices get heard.

According to Wu, proposing the SSA needs the approval of only 5% of residents. Those who oppose it will need agreement from 51% of voters to shut down the process.

“It is unfair for a small group of people to send [the] SSA application and then we have to work very hard to tell the City ‘we don’t need it,” Wu said. “We are here to ask the government to hear the voice of majority, hard-working citizens.”

Wu also raised concerns that “people of interest” like Wong will become commissioners. Wong sought to address this and other major rumors in his letter. Wong believes the commission must remain independent and consist of a diverse group of community members with Chinatown’s best interests in mind.

“The chamber, as a fiscal agent of the SSA, cannot have that open door for that kind of conflict of interest—that’s just not done, and that’s true of any SSA,” Wong said. “I think it’s really important that these people be from the community. If you’re a member of the community, you should have a voice as to how this money is spent.”

Despite the backlash, Wong hopes his letter cleared up some of the rumors surrounding the SSA or, at the very least, continues the conversation.

Wong looks forward to seeing increased civic engagement surrounding this debate, particularly from millennial residents, so that a wide spectrum of the community will decide what their neighborhood really needs.

Chicago’s Chinatown Chamber of Commerce can be reached at (312) 326-5320. To contact the Chinese American Service League, call (312) 791-0418. Solis can be reached at (773) 523-4100.