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Hispanic businesses recharge corridor of Atlanta Highway
Jose Hernandez prepares empanadas Wednesday afternoon at his bakery, Mi Tierra, on Atlanta Highway. Atlanta Highway has become the center of the Hispanic business community.

It’s just after the lunchtime rush at Perla Medrano’s ice cream shop, La Mejor De Michoacan, on Atlanta Highway in Gainesville.

Outside, the smell of sugary sweet empanadas hangs in the air from the shop next door, El Carreton, which serves the delectable Mexican dessert in flavors like vanilla and pineapple.

Inside, Medrano greets a group of teens.

“Buenos Dias,” she said.

“Are you all out of school?” she followed in English.

Spanish hit music plays on satellite radio in the background. Hits like, “Te he echado de menos,” by Latino Grammy winning Spanish singer Pablo Alboran, play in the background on satellite radio.

Medrano is from California and always wanted to run her own business there, but the steep price tag for commercial real estate made turning a profit difficult.

“My friend told me, ‘Come to Gainesville, Ga. You can start a business here cheap,’” she recounted.

And where better to sell her ice creams, familiar flavors and Mexican flair alike, than on Atlanta Highway? The prevalence of Latino-owned businesses on the Gainesville thoroughfare has earned it the nickname “Little Mexico.”

“I’ve been very successful here, and I’ve opened two more stores since,” Medrano said with a proud smile.

There is a similar atmosphere in nearly every Atlanta Highway business. News plays, but it’s Univision rather than CNN or Fox News recapping the day’s events. Soccer highlights, rather than baseball, flash on the sports channels. For customers and employees, “Spanglish” is the common tongue.

‘We remain together’

Frank Norton Jr., a longtime Gainesville resident, co-executive of an 85-year-old insurance company in Gainesville and founder of the Hispanic business alliance, said Atlanta Highway has fluctuated over the years as a business hub.

“Atlanta Highway was Gainesville’s retail marketplace in the 1940s and 1950s,” he said. “Where it is today, the tire store was a pharmacy, and there were a number of other good businesses, including several automobile dealerships. It was the retail part of town much like Buford Highway would be to Atlanta.

“As the mall was developed and opened in the late 1970s and 1980s, the retail influence shifted, and the auto dealers relocated to Browns Bridge Road, which left a number of those smaller sites along Atlanta Highway to kind of go through first a decline, and now a resurgence. I view what has been happening in the last 10 years as a resurgence, with the influx of the Hispanic community.”

Medrano’s business, like many of the businesses on Atlanta Highway, is family owned.

“Generally speaking, we tend to remain together,” said Vicente Bautista, a former business owner and Mexico native.

“If the family can remain together — not only socially but in business — they will stay that way,” he said.

Bautista, now a full-time interpreter in area courts, including Hall County’s, moved to Gainesville from outside Mexico City in 1986.

“In 1986, there were two Mexican stores: Gemini and Marianna’s, both family-owned. It was just those two little stores, behind J&J (Foods). Back then J&J was considered the main Mexican store because they catered to the taste,” he said.

After President Ronald Reagan signed a sweeping amnesty bill that legalized 3 million immigrants in 1986, Bautista saw the area blossom.

“This has been tied up to immigration,” he said. “There were two main pieces of legislation, in 1986 and then 1988 and 1989. So somewhere around the 1990s was when I would say there was an explosion of sorts — a boom — with all those business along Atlanta Highway.”

A thriving destination

Today, not only is Atlanta Highway a hub for the Gainesville Latino community, but further reaches of the Latino community as well, Norton said.

“Some people may not realize this, but it’s a regional destination for the Hispanic community,” he said. “I have a friend who is a Hispanic contractor in Highlands, N.C., and he comes every Sunday with his family to shop at Atlanta Highway and have ice cream — it’s a regional destination and event for his family. They do their shopping for Hispanic foods and spices, then they get ice cream.

“Most folks don’t have that perspective, and in fact they think it’s rundown, but those who saw it rundown in the ’70s and ’80s can see through that and see this regeneration of retail space.”

However, that retail renaissance hit a wall in 2008, with various explanations offered, including immigration fears and the economic downturn.

But Norton said he expects Hispanic businesses to continue to thrive again, at Atlanta Highway and beyond.

“I do think there’s some additional opportunities opening up on Atlanta Highway,” he said. “It’s not institutional quality, industrial space or retail space, but it serves a great need and provides folks affordable rent. But it’s the new shopping centers being developed that are really kind of fascinating, kind of south of Industrial Boulevard toward Chicopee.”

Norton, along with Bautista and others, founded a local Hispanic business alliance 20 years ago to bridge the “growing Hispanic community with the American community, helping them become settled and become part of the community fabric, and getting people involved,” Norton said.

For future collaboration and alliances with the Hispanic community, Norton noted the emphasis on diversity within Vision 2030, a project of the Greater Hall County Chamber of Commerce to study growth and development in Gainesville and Hall County.

“By and large, there’s a Hispanic multicultural aspect of Vision 2030,” he said. “Gainesville has a spirit of entrepreneurship, and is very supportive of small businesses, whether you are black, Hispanic or white; it’s very supportive of all types.”

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