Decker campaign to emphasize international flavor

When the Three Kings parade marches down Decker Boulevard on Saturday, it will be more than a celebration for Columbia's Latino community.

It will be a step forward in a plan to revitalize the one street in the Midlands where people can find Korean kimchee, Mexican menudo soup or Jamaican beef patties.

The Three Kings festival -which is the Latino celebration of the Epiphany, or the 12th day of Christmas - will be the first of what many hope is a series of events highlighting the cultures represented by businesses along the strip.

"You can go from one country to another country tasting food and sampling cultures without leaving the block," said Tanya Rodriguez Hodges, the parade's organizer. "We're trying to focus on what Decker has to offer."

Decker Boulevard has been struggling for more than a decade. National retailers and chain restaurants fled the street in recent years for newer shopping areas in Northeast Richland. That has left the remaining business owners and politicians who represent the area searching for ways to bring people back.

Along the way, many have said Decker should capitalize on the main thing it offers - international flavor.

Now, that plan is in the works.

A re-energized business coalition has held three meet-and-greets during the past year, said Sylvia Hanna, president of the Decker Boulevard Business Coalition. Now, owners of Korean beauty salons know owners of Mexican bakeries.

In October, banners were unfurled on street posts proclaiming Decker as "Richland County's International Corridor."

Saturday's Three Kings parade will be the first public event since the banners went up.

Richland County Councilman Jim Manning, whose district includes Decker, said he is thrilled.

"What I would really like to see is to try to look at having a monthly celebration related to another country," he said.

The idea for the parade was hatched by Hodges. Her Puerto Rican family celebrated Three Kings when she was a child in New York.

As part of the holiday, children leave hay and other food on their doorsteps to feed the camels carrying the three wise men to see baby Jesus. In return, the wise men leave gifts for the children.

The holiday has different variations in each Latin American country that celebrates it. In Mexico, for example, a special cake called Rosca de Reyes is baked.

Hodges' goal for the Three Kings event is to bridge the gap between the city's Latino community and the non-Spanish speaking residents.

Hodges' business, Latino Communications, once was located on Decker but recently moved to an office on Read Street as part of Benedict College's business incubator. But she remains attached to Decker.

"I have an infinite amount of love and respect for Decker," she said.

Andrew Witt, executive director of the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties, said other cities have international districts that focus on immigrant communities. He believes it is a good idea for Decker.

"That is an asset that already exists, and it needs to be taken advantage of," he said.

The cultural council is one of the event's sponsors.

Cultural development and economic development can go hand in hand, he said.

Witt said he once heard a well-known consultant who helps cities revitalize neighborhoods say: "If you have activity, that attracts people, and if you have people, that attracts money."

Hopefully, the Three Kings festival will be the start for Decker Boulevard.

"There's no reason this can't happen on Decker," Witt said. "We are starting the ball rolling."

Still, people interested in the street's development know it will take more than a start-up parade.

"We feel good about the possibilities," Hanna said. "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time."

Those involved need to be creative, Manning said. And they need to be realistic.

"We have to have some people accept that Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Kroger and Target are never going to come back to Decker Boulevard," he said.

He would like to see facade upgrades as one project.

And, of course, the business owners wouldn't mind if a developer decided to bring a large project to the street, Hanna said.

The word about Decker's offerings is spreading, Hanna said.

"We have people in the restaurant business who know if they can't find ingredients they can come to Decker Boulevard," she said.

"We're just trying to get people to come. They will be surprised. It's a gold mine for the right person."