Kenneth Li: Bringing many voices together
Updated: 2014-08-22 12:22
By May Zhou in Houston(China Daily USA)
Kenneth Li, chair of the Sharpstown Management District, says that "as a collective group, our voices will be heard". May Zhou / China Daily
Kenneth Li, born in Taiwan and raised in Hong Kong, came to Houston in 1981 to go to college at Houston Baptist University. Since then, he hasn't ventured far from his school, but has built a strong community around himself. He got into real estate after graduation and focused his business in southwest Chinatown, which is less than three miles from the school.
"My uncle D. T. Wong came to Houston and developed the first Chinese shopping center DIHO Market in southwest Chinatown in 1983. I helped him out and stayed on after graduation," said Li.
His job with his uncle was a spring board and Li flourished in real estate. He founded Texas George Realty in 1988. In 1997, he acquired the Century 21 Southwest Real Estate franchise to take his business into the mainstream. He is the owner of Century 21 Southwest, a full service real estate firm.
Li has long been active in public affairs in the local community, and much of his time is devoted to it. "I remember when DIHO was first opened, this area was primarily a white middle class neighborhood. People were complaining about the Chinese signs and our driving habits. They were not that friendly to us. I realized then that to live here we needed to deal with local people," he said.
While still in college, Li served as secretary of the newly established Chinese Chamber of Commerce (which evolved into what is now the Asian Chamber of Commerce) and he has been actively involved in various organizations ever since.
Over the years, Li served as co-chair for the Association of Chinese Organizations (ACO), president and chairman of Houston Asian Junior Chamber of Commerce and vice-chair of the Chinese Community Center. He founded the Greater Houston Chinese Real Estate Association and the Asian American Real Estate Association and also served in 2011 as the national chairman of Asian Real Estate Association of America.
"ACO was the first platform representing the Chinese-American community, and we helped Martha Wong become the first Chinese American to win a seat on the Houston City Council and Helen Chang be appointed as assistant to the mayor," said Li.
With the push from Wong and Chang for more inclusion of Asians in the city government, Li was appointed by the mayor to serve on the Houston City Planning Commission (HCPC) from 1994 to 1996 as the first Chinese/Asian-American member. HCPC reviews and approves subdivision and development plans and studies and makes recommendations to the city council on development issues.
Li said he has learned much from his service experience. "I realized that to better our own community, we need change our habit of working on our own and doing everything by ourselves. We need to build connections, work with the government and the community at large," said Li.
In 1999, Li helped get the city council to create the Southwest Houston Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ), which includes Chinatown. TIRZs help finance the cost of local redevelopment and improvement by giving back 30 percent of the incremental tax to the zone every year.
"Chinatown has been growing and prospering, yet our infrastructure couldn't catch up. Under the TIRZ, we are able to get the necessary funds for improvement," said Li, who has been serving on its board since day one.
With funds from TIRZ, the organization provided $500,000 to help the Houston Police Department open a Midwest Command Station to improve the safety of the area.
Another major improvement project under TIRZ has been the ongoing construction of Bellaire Boulevard. TIRZ enabled this area to get $30 million in funds through a bond issue for the three year project scheduled to conclude at the end of the year.
"We finally got to improve our infrastructure - better sewers, wider roads and more lanes," Li said. Part of the project runs through the main section of Chinatown.
In 2005, Li and other area business leaders successfully lobbied the Texas State Legislature to form the Greater Sharpstown Management District (GSMD), a governmental entity under the state to "promote, develop, encourage, and maintain employment, commerce, transportation, housing, tourism, recreation, the arts, entertainment, economic development, safety and the public welfare in the district and adjacent areas", according to its charter. Li has been serving as chairman since then.
GSMD has about $1 million in working funds every year, and about a quarter of it has been invested in extra private security for the area to make it more attractive to businesses.
In 2005, Li, along with a group of local commercial properties owners and developers, bankers and business owners, formed the Asian American Business Council (AABC) and has served as its president ever since. The non-profit organization focuses on improving safety and coordinating existing security in Chinatown.
"With AABC, we pool money together and hire fulltime security guards to patrol Chinatown," said Li.
Li has always believed that working as a group is better than working alone, which is why he has participated in so many professional as well as civic and governmental organizations. He served as the national president of the Asian Real Estate Association of America in 2011 and is still actively involved.
"As a group, we go to Washington every May to meet with the lawmakers and talk about how to promote Asian interests, such as better policies for minority small businesses, mortgage programs for new immigrants and the like. As a collective group, our voices will be heard; as individuals, we are more likely to be ignored," Li said.