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Kenton neighbors build a strong foundation

With help of business group, market gets new look, clientele


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - There are still more convenience store items than groceries in Asfaw Chaneyalews Triple Crown Market, but Chaneyalew is trying to change that, with the help of his Kenton neighbors.The front windows of the Triple Crown Market in Kenton are plastered with posters for Pabst Blue Ribbon, Coors Light and cheap cigarettes. Which, in most cases, would label the market as precisely the type of convenience store many North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods have been trying to eject.

But in Kenton, the neighbors are taking a different approach. Shop owners, independent tradespeople and residents in the area have been pitching in to help Triple Crown’s husband-and-wife owners, Asfaw Chaneyalew and Muluken Aymierw, improve their store. On a Sunday afternoon in January, about 20 volunteers helped renovate the interior of the market, moving Cheerios and pasta toward the front of the store, where cigarettes, beer and candy previously had dominated. They added shelves so the store can stock more everyday items such as dog food and cleaning products. They helped Triple Crown start to become a little more like the type of store they’d like in their neighborhood.

Not coincidentally, the Kenton Business Association has undergone a rebirth of its own. For more than a decade, the association had only two working members, says current president Jessie Burke, owner of Posies Bakery & Cafe on North Denver Street. Now, Burke says, the association has between 30 and 40 active members, and is starting to reflect the change occurring in what is slowly becoming one of Portland’s up-and-coming neighborhoods.

Certainly, if there were a competition for the friendliest business district in town, Kenton would have to be among the top seeds. Burke says the shop owners in Kenton simply are extremely supportive of one another.

“I don’t want to say other people (in different commercial areas) aren’t willing to help,” Burke says. “But we kind of joke that we have a little Mayberry in Kenton. It’s almost like the nature of our business association. Nobody really argues. We create a culture that we’re all in it together.”

New life as grocery store

Chaneyalew and Aymierw, Ethiopean immigrants, took over Triple Crown in 1999. At the time the store was about one-quarter its current size. In 2007, the couple expanded the store into space previously occupied by a beauty shop. But the convenience store feel never left until the volunteers arrived.

“It is a big change,” Chaneyalew says. “Now it feels like a grocery instead of a convenience store.”

Triple Crown is the only grocery store in downtown Kenton, though a Fred Meyer sits on North Lombard Street not too far away. Chaneyalew says the younger residents who have been changing the face of neighborhood in the last few years had occasionally stopped in and asked if he could stock more grocery products, including fresh food and vegetables.

But it took Burke’s involvement with the business association to provide momentum. Burke says over the past few years, the business association has successfully recruited shops to take over any vacant storefronts along Denver Street. Only three major storefronts are currently vacant, she says.

Chaneyalew never talked about moving out, but he did tell Burke Triple Crown’s business had fallen off considerably since TriMet’s No. 6 bus line ceased running up Denver Street about a year ago. She says Chaneyalew expressed interest in turning his convenience store into something resembling a grocery, but didn’t seem to know how he might do that.

Organizing for success

Burke helped organize 15 different neighborhood tradespeople, from an architect who voluntarily put together a redesign of Triple Crown to a cement company willing to do patch work for free. The business association wrote a grant to Venture Portland, a city-funded nonprofit tasked with strengthening neighborhood business districts. Money from that grant is being used to secure a refrigerated case in which Triple Crown can display fresh fruits and vegetables.

Twelve other Kenton businesses also received money from the grant, which helped the neighborhood retain a flower shop and recruit a pet shop. Soul food restaurant Po’Shines, across the street, used grant money for a new dishwasher.

Burke also helped Chaneyalew apply for a Portland Development Commission storefront improvement grant to pay for finishing the exterior of Triple Crown.

Burke says she decided to open her coffee shop in Kenton in 2010 when she heard Multnomah County was opening a library branch right on Denver Street. Now she’s become a major force in helping the Kenton commercial area keep pace with the artists and young professionals purchasing many of the neighborhood’s homes. She takes the work seriously, and personally.

“They are a family that moved here 20 years ago from Ethiopia,” Burke says of the Triple Crown owners. “This is their entire family’s income, and we’re not allowed to see this fail just because the neighborhood has changed and they don’t know what to do.”

John Tolbert, chef and general manager of Po’Shines, was one of about 10 restaurant employees and members of its associated Celebration Tabernacle Church who volunteered to help renovate the store in January.

Tolbert says Triple Crown has probably turned away a number of potential customers who felt threatened by the convenience store look in the past. But the new residents of gentrifying Kenton are there to be had, he says, once Chaneyalew completes his store’s conversion.

“I think he can probably double his business because it will be more inviting,” Tolbert says.

As for those cigarette and beer posters decorating the Triple Crown’s front windows, Chaneyalew says the PDC grant, if secured, will help him put in new windows and paint the storefront. And when that happens, he says, he will take down the posters.

“We don’t want to welcome just certain people,” he says. “We want to welcome everybody.”