Councilman proposes international restaurant row

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WIlkins, right, talks with Los Gordos chef Moises Diaz last week.

by Eric Ginsburg

Councilman Tony Wilkins wants the city to consider creating a year-round International Restaurant Row to promote existing and future restaurants on High Point Road in Greensboro.

A gigantic map of a section of High Point Road, with restaurants labeled and marked in yellow, dominates most of the back wall in Tony Wilkins’ city office. It’s one of the few decorations adorning the Greensboro councilman’s space, and it illustrates an idea Wilkins has been casually talking about for several years. But now he’s pushing to bring it to fruition.

In addition to staking out his claim as the consistently conservative voice on city council, Wilkins’ relatively short tenure in the seat has been marked by a series of efforts to enhance High Point Road, one of the main thoroughfares in his southwestern quadrant of the city.

The street, which cuts through several other districts including Wilkins’, doesn’t exactly enjoy the best reputation but is one of Greensboro’s major arteries. Wilkins, who has long run his business there and likes to brag that he spent his whole life in the same ZIP code, started his push to change that perception by renaming the street as Gate City Boulevard. Now his sites are set on an International Restaurant Row.

Wilkins came up with the idea to promote the plethora of international restaurants along the street while serving on the city’s coliseum commission. A map of restaurants already existed, he said, “but I wanted to make it more of an ethnic journey… with an international flavor.”

Wilkins is focused on a two-mile stretch from the city limits near the future Interstate 73 to Interstate 40. There are 38 restaurants packed into the area, and while several are American chains, many are among the city’s most popular international cuisine establishments, including Banh Mi Saigon, Kiha II of Japan, Villa del Mar and Van Loi II. The list doesn’t include a handful of international groceries, such as World Market and Krishna Indian Grocery.

“You can take a trip around the world in a two-mile boulevard,” Wilkins said. “That is an area of High Point Road that really needs help right now.”

Wilkins sits at his desk in front of the large map of the restaurant row area.
Wilkins sits at his desk in front of the large map of the restaurant row area.

The key for the conservative councilman is that he doesn’t think it would cost much to effectively brand and market the existing asset, and it could potentially attract other international restaurants to the area to help revitalize it, he said.

The effort would coincide with existing city plans to invest in repair and streetscaping, which Wilkins said makes it an ideal time to consider how to leverage the investment and possibly upfit other amenities too, such as street lighting.

His idea is very much in the early stages, but a recent email to fellow council members was well received, with several expressing their support for exploring or considering the concept.

At-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter, who owns a seafood restaurant on the opposite side of the city, said in an interview that the idea excites her.

“I’m very interested in this international area for restaurants,” she said. “I think it’s something that we could all get on board with and involve our international advisory committee. It would be a great outreach to assist those in those groups who may be in the restaurant industry or are thinking of starting up their own restaurants or to entice more diversity in certain areas of the city. I think it would be a marvelous thing.”

Wilkins said he hopes that the council’s economic-development committee — on which both he and Abuzuaiter sit — will consider the idea. Councilman Zack Matheny, who chairs the committee, couldn’t be reached for comment and didn’t immediately respond to Wilkins’ email requesting that the restaurant row be considered.

Luck Davidson, the executive director of Triad Local First, said she didn’t know much about the idea yet but she is skeptical.

“What would appeal to me would be if they could help other existing restaurants relocate there… that probably couldn’t afford to relocate,” she said.  “That would be my big fear that some of these businesses that are out there now that are struggling to get people to even come in there once would be hurt.”

Davidson said she was interested in Wilkins’ idea of providing signage on highways to direct out-of-towners to local international restaurants instead of chains.

“I really do want to talk to him about it,” she said. “I’ve always thought how great it would be for people traveling to know where the locally owned restaurants are instead of going to the chain that’s nearby. He’s onto something there.”

Though it’s early there has already been some city movement. Staff drew up the map on Wilkins’ wall, and he keeps a small stack of printed copies to share the idea. Wilkins has had some scattered conversations with a few international restaurant owners in the area, all of whom were very excited about the idea, he said, but the city is in the process of gathering input and notifying business owners.