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Overcoming myths to build a community

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Updated Oct 11, 2005

When Larry Taylor opened his Goodyear Tire Center in early 1990, there wasn't a Chick-fil-A or Kmart across the street on Wesley Chapel Road.

And a Home Depot was not towering behind his business.

Within two years, his environment blossomed. His business now sits in a pocket of prosperity, created largely by black-owned businesses and residents taking ownership in their community.

With a black population of more than 75 percent, southeast DeKalb County, which stretches eastward from I-285 to the Rockdale County line, defies the myth that business cannot prosper in a predominantly black area.

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Area businesses _ start-up and large retailers _ thrive from the continued patronage of residents who believe in supporting their community.

"We are not a bedroom community to Atlanta, where our folks work and do everything else in Atlanta and just come home to eat and go to church." said state Rep. Henrietta Turnquest, D-Decatur. "We are a viable community to do business. Now, we are coming to our home community and desiring to do more."

Earl Glenn, a local dentist and owner of The Champion, a DeKalb newspaper, agreed.

"We spend money in our own neighborhood, and we do business with people who do business with us," he said. "We demand respect for our dollar."

The process of rolling dollars back into the black community has produced southeast DeKalb's climate of economic self-sufficiency. This, coupled with the area's demographics _ typical household income is $38,788, compared with the state's median of $29,021 _ explains why big chains like Wal-Mart and Kmart recently have located in the area.

In November, Home Depot will open a 102,000-square-foot store. By 1995, Turner Hill Mall is expected to open at the eastern end of the county.

According to residents and the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, southeast DeKalb has it all: the infrastructure, including the I-285 and I-20 junction; water and sewer systems; and proximity to the airport.

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It has a large black middle class _ affluent and highly educated _ which contributes to the county's total black buying power of $3.1-billion.

Retailers and business owners say strong demographics and infrastructure make the area attractive.

But southeast DeKalb has experienced something more, said Doug Bachtel, a professor of geography at the University of Georgia. It is capitalizing on improved racial attitudes, enforced discrimination laws, an increasing level of education, better job opportunities and a rise in income, Bachtel said. The changes have given retailers a new direction, and they are entering areas previously overlooked.

"Sometimes we discount demographic trends as just happening, but somebody has been planning this," Bachtel said. "It's been cooking for a while. These things don't just happen."

As leadership networks emerged and informal service organizations began talking to one another, a snowball effect resulted, Bachtel said.

While no one is certain which events sparked the changes in southeast DeKalb, many have suggested the following:

Efforts by the Community Relations Commission to control white flight during the '70s.

Formation of the Candler Road Business Association in the early '70s (later becoming the South DeKalb Business Association.)

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Formation of the Flat Shoals Alliance, an organization of business people, both black and white, to deal with civic and professional issues.

Election of black politicians during the 1980s.

Opening of First Southern Bank, a black-owned bank that lends to many small businesses.

But the profile of the residents _ many of whom relocated from cities such as New York, Detroit and Los Angeles _ also helps explain economic growth in the area.

"There is a universal law of migration," Bachtel said. "Migrants tend to be better educated and make more money than the population they move into."

"One of the good things about south DeKalb is that we don't have an "old guard' system in which the young Turks have to come in and conquer the area," said state Rep. Frank Redding, D-Decatur, a DeKalb resident and business owner. "We have a local government that is seemingly making an effort to put aside its bias and openly welcome all citizens."

The environment is not hostile, said Milton Lincoln, manager of government relations of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and a DeKalb resident. It allows residents to maximize their potential.

Baranco Pontiac on Covington Highway is the largest black-owned dealership in Atlanta. Owner Greg Baranco also is a partner with a group of black businessmen who developed Sandstone Shores, a subdivision of $400,000 to $500,000 homes in Lithonia.

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But changing attitudes to create a harmonious residential and business environment is a slow process. The presence of major retailers in southeast DeKalb is long overdue.

Turner Hill Mall, a 1.3 million-square-foot regional mall, was first proposed in 1983 but postponed several times. Now, with a lease agreement from Parisian, an Alabama-based department store chain, the mall is on again.

For years, major retailers have been reluctant to enter communities with a large concentration of black residents. The retailers cite reasons such as an inability to market and sell their products and a fear of crime and vandalism. Today, most black areas remain virtually untapped by large retailers.

White retailers must recognize that the black consumer is the most conscientious consumer, Taylor said.

As black buying power rises, many retailers are taking note.

Home Depot, for instance, is considering a store in the Greenbriar area in southwest Atlanta, but plans have not been finalized.

"Our money is colorblind," said Jeff Langfelder, southeastern real estate manager of the Atlanta-based company. "Everybody shops and everybody hopefully does home improvement. We are smart enough to see the opportunities, and the opportunities are there whether they are black or white."

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