The Northland area of Columbus, Ohio was booming in the 1960s and 70s. About 65 square kilometers, the area was a shopping and dining destination. Its centerpiece was the Northland Mall on Morse Road.
“You couldn’t get a parking space at the mall at Christmas time,” Dave Cooper, president of the Northland Area Business Association, told Columbusalive.com.
In the early 2000s, the area fell on hard times. Retailers began to desert the mall – Columbus’s oldest – for newer shopping centers and in 2002, Northland Mall closed, ushering the whole Morse Road corridor into a period of increasing crime and vacant storefronts.
The city of Columbus went into action, creating special commissions and offering tax incentives. But when help arrived, it came from an unexpected quarter.
As the old mall was closing, immigrants and refugees were opening up small shops and restaurants along Morse Road. A group of Somali refugees opened Global Mall just five blocks away, offering new space opportunities for startup entrepreneurs. Part shopping center, part community gathering place, Global Mall today hosts all sorts of businesses.
And Global was just the beginning of what has become a corridor of immigrant and refugee businesses along Morse Road.
“Some refugees or some immigrants have great business skills. So they got into the business without help of the government … and they flourished,” says Somali business owner Ahmed O. Haji.
“I bought ramen noodles and extra hot peppers. I like the fact that there is a big variety from all different places around the world,” says Ron Kosa, a customer at the Saraga International Grocery, which is located in a former Toys R Us building on Morse Road.
Korean immigrant John Sung opened the 5,000 square-meter grocery four years ago.
"We have products from five continents, Africa, Asia, South America, Europe all over the world basically,” Sung says, adding that his 80 employees are similarly from all over the world.
In addition to selling groceries, Saraga provides space for individual merchants, hosting a halal butcher, a Mexican bakery and a Nepali food stand among others.
Jubba Value Center Mall
About two kilometers away from Saraga grocery is Jubba Value Center Mall where Somali refugees and immigrants have small shops and help each other bring in new customers. Columbus has the second largest Somali community in the U.S. after Minneapolis, MN.
“Morse Road is a very strategic location,” says Haji who started the Jubba Travel agency nine years ago. “It's one of the highest revenue generated ZIP codes in Columbus. It's a great location. Morse has very diverse ethnic people that live in this area.”
The influx of refugees and immigrants kept the population of the Northland area from declining in the first years of the new millennium.
From 2007 to 2012, immigrant entrepreneurship rose citywide by 41.5%. Native born entrepreneurship declined by 1.2 percent during the same time period.
“Based on a recent study, we could account for over 900 businesses that were opened specifically by the refugee community,” said Guadalupe Velasquez, Assistant Director of the Department of Neighborhoods for the city of Columbus. “And they then in turn employ over 23,000 individuals.”
The total contribution of refugees to the city's economy is $1.6 billion, Velasquez added.
“I did not have an incentive move or any advice from the city,” says Haji about opening his travel agency.
“What drove me to start the business was the need for my immigrant people predominantly Somali people who are going back home. And the means of transportation is an airline. So I thought that was a lucrative business to get into.”
Since the president’s executive order limiting travel from six countries, including Somalia, took effect in June, Haji says his business has declined dramatically. But he will keep at it.
"The city is very welcoming. Columbus, I've been here for almost 21 years now, and I am not going to go anywhere else."