SOUTH SALT LAKE — Lettuce leaves spewed from the lion's mouth as they "plucked the greens" in a traditional ceremony to bring good luck and good fortune to the city's newest business venture.

It was an appropriate greeting, and groundbreaking for Utah's first Chinatown.

It's a project that has been four years in the making, one on which a struggling economy took its toll, causing a "modest delay" in planning and construction, South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood said Monday.

But the process has been met with enthusiasm along the way, as she said the community is hopeful that turning an old, rundown building into a one-of-a-kind shopper's paradise will help the local economy grow. Wood said it "marks the beginning of what will be a multimillion-dollar investment in the future of our city, as well as a significant tribute to Chinese culture."

And the 10,000-plus Chinese nationals living in the area have wanted it for a long time, said Margaret Yee, who came to Salt Lake City for a college education in 1962 and later served nine years as the governor's adviser for Asian affairs.

"I love it here and I would never leave," she said. "It is so beautiful and people are friendly and the resources are so rich."

Yee hopes the new Chinatown becomes a tourist attraction, allowing more people to learn about China, its cuisine and its many products.

"It will be nice to have all the stores in one place," she said. "A lot of stores don't have everything, and you have to go all over town to find what you need. This way is much more convenient."

When the project is fully realized, it will incorporate 5.7 acres, with a total retail space of 110,000 square-feet and 270 parking stalls, located at 3390 S. State. It is anticipated that the Salt Lake City Chinatown will house an authentic, Hong Kong-style restaurant, a 30,000 square-foot Asian supermarket and more than 40 retail stores.

The first phase of the shopping center is expected to be complete in October of next year.

Investors for the project come from New York, Hong Kong and the local region, and the property was selected after cities such as Denver and Las Vegas, which already have a Chinatown-like presence, were ruled out, according to Andrew So, president of Chinatown Investments Inc., which is responsible for the South Salt Lake project. He said Salt Lake boasted the "biggest potential for a project like this."

"There is a huge population here, a lot of returned missionaries from Asian countries and the Asian community is well-represented," So said. He said the company plans to expand to other areas as well, but not until the South Salt Lake project is successful.

"We believe each city should have its own Chinatown," So said, adding that his parents moved to Utah four years ago and have decided to stay, basing their business here.

The project, he said, will bring jobs, but also "provide a space to share the beauties of Asian cultures and traditions."

Chi Huynh, who has lived and worked in Utah for 27 years, said she is excited for the new shopping center to come to town. Huynh plans to seek employment at the new facility, as she believes she is a "great salesperson."

The location has previously been used as the Rocky Point Haunted House, which collected spook alley admission fees every Halloween for charity. But City Councilman Boyd Marshall said that wasn't the best use of the property.

"It will be great to turn an eyesore into something wonderful, and maybe put South Salt Lake on the map," he said, adding that he's excited for the diverse population to have a place to go to be together and celebrate their heritage.

Email: wleonard@desnews.com