As seven little girls from Community School of Excellence danced, passersby stopped to watch, onlookers snapped photos and someone in a passing car on University Avenue shouted out a salute.

Little Mekong Plaza was dedicated Wednesday, praised as the first privately owned public space on the Green Line on University Avenue in St. Paul, and already this small grassy space is a big deal — to the Frogtown neighborhood and to the city's Hmong and Vietnamese communities. Owned by Hmong American Partnership, the plaza will be home to the growing Little Mekong Night Market and serve as a place for music or dance or just to sit.

"It is so important because it's the only open space up and down the avenue," said Bao Vang, CEO and president of Hmong American Partnership.

At a cost of $300,000, funded with a grant from the city's 8-80 Vitality Fund, the plaza is more than a park, said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. It is a symbol of the area's vitality, from the days of the former Rondo neighborhood that was once at the heart of St. Paul's black community to the more recent influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia and east Africa.

"This plaza is more than an anchor to the neighborhood. It's a statement, a commitment to having a more vibrant city," Coleman said.

Five months ago the plaza, near University and Western Avs., was occupied by a small, vacant cinder-block building. But the work to transform it into a much-needed public space actually started about three years ago, said Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association. As University Avenue has transformed from a street of once-shabby and boarded-up buildings into an increasingly vibrant home to restaurants, bakeries and food markets, leaders asked community elders what else they wished to see at the site.

Thoj said their desires were simple.

"The elders talked of the importance of a place to just enjoy the weather and to just hang out," he said.

Green on the Green Line

Little Mekong is part of the city's continuing efforts to add more green space along the Green Line light rail connecting downtown St. Paul with downtown Minneapolis.

With the help of money raised by the Trust for Public Land, the city recently bought land to make a park near the Skyline Tower low-income housing high-rise and Gordon Parks High School.

Frogtown Farm, a mile northwest of Mekong Plaza, is finishing its second season as a park and working farm. It, too, was purchased with help from the Trust for Public Land.

Hmong American Partnership will coordinate programming and maintenance of Little Mekong Plaza with the Asian Economic Development Association and other partners.

Vang said she hopes the space will allow Little Mekong Night Market, which has brought a thriving Southeast Asian street market to the area, to expand into additional weekends.

Most of all, said those who gathered Wednesday, they want it to be a place where people feel safe and at home.

A concrete post at the northwest corner of the plaza has the words "May Peace Prevail on Earth" etched in eight different languages.

A Hmong shaman, Chad Tongua Lee, banged a gong and chanted a blessing.

"It's a ceremony of blessing and welcome," Thoj said. "To make it a spiritually safe place for the community."