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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Tale of Two Downtowns

Judy Nadler

When Michael Nguyen was elected president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, he had a long "to do" list. First among his many priorities was to foster closer relationships between the burgeoning Vietnamese business community and the Centerville City Council. His first opportunity came in a matter of weeks. At their annual goal-setting meeting, the mayor and council created an Office of Economic Development, and Michael was appointed to the Task Force. As the owner of two small dry-cleaning stores, he was particularly concerned about how local businesses could compete with large chains, especially in the outdated downtown.

As his term as chamber president drew to a close, Michael was drafted to run for an open seat on the city council. The Vietnamese-American community celebrated his campaign kick-off with an old-fashioned political rally, complete with rousing speeches. His finance chair and good friend, Kevin Tran, had no problem raising enough money for a successful race. Although he didn't envision himself a politician, Michael found he enjoyed the hand shaking, speech making, and celebrity status that went along with the campaign. The press covered his every move, as he was the first Vietnamese-American candidate in the city's history. His platform included many things on his chamber "to-do" list, with the revitalization of the downtown as his number one-campaign promise.

After his successful election, the pressure began to mount about how and when to re-develop the downtown. Tran, his finance chair, owned two-blocks in the core area and proposed a citizens' committee to advise the council and the Economic Development Task Force. Michael had resigned his position on the task force, and although he felt a little uncomfortable, he decided to appoint Tran, rationalizing that it was because of his insights as a property owner and not because of his campaign fund-raising efforts.

The citizens ultimately recommend two proposals to the city council. The first provided low-cost loans to businesses to refurbish their buildings. It created a business improvement district, and collected membership fees from owners for advertising and marketing. This model had been successful in turning around a neighborhood shopping center in the historic district of town.

The second proposal called for the city to establish a redevelopment agency, purchase a six-block area at the core, and create a new downtown. The businesses affected would be given first priority for relocating in the new buildings and would be given a subsidy during the construction period to counter any loss of business in their temporary locations.

The Vietnamese business community was unanimous in their support of the project. While he could see the benefit of the "brand new" downtown, Michael felt businesses in other parts of the city were not likely to receive the same level of support and would view the proposals as favoritism. Because of his business experience and stature in the Vietnamese-American community, Michael's council colleagues were looking to him for guidance. He had to weigh his strong allegiance to the community of supporters who elected him, and especially to his former finance chair, against what he saw as a fairness issue.


  1. Should Michael Nguyen's ethnicity have any impact on his land-use decision? Why or why not?

  2. How should he balance the request from the Vietnamese-American community and the needs of other segments of the community?

Jun 1, 2004
Government Ethics Stories