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Latinos: Improve safety before beautification projects
La Flor de Jalisco store manager David Arteaga talks Friday about the appearance of the storefront. Artega thinks that it would be safer if more sidewalks were constructed along Atlanta Highway. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce is looking at ways to assist Latino business owners — starting with plans for a beautification project along Atlanta Highway — but many business owners in the Latino business district say aesthetics takes a backseat to safety concerns.

The chamber formed the International Small Business Council, a group dedicated to encouraging and strengthening the Latino business community, about 18 months ago following Vision 2030 discussions, said Phillippa Lewis-Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center and a member of the council.

Already, the council has held round-table discussions with Latino community leaders —church leaders, grocery store owners, bankers, Realtors and bookkeepers — discussing issues relevant to the county’s Latino community. The group also has held seminars to assist Latino businesses with basic accounting practices.

The group’s goal is to help bridge Latino community and business leaders with the mainstream business community by creating dialogue between them.

"We want to identify leaders within the community that will give a voice to a somewhat unrepresented group in the community," said Johnny Mejia, who is also the assistant vice president and branch manager at the SunTrust bank at Blackshear Place.

By giving some much-needed representation to a large part of the Hall County community, the International Small Business Council also seeks to strengthen the area economy, Mejia said.

"When any figment of the community becomes stronger, more self-sufficient, more progressive, then I think the overall economy benefits," Mejia said. "...At the end of the day, I think it’s going to contribute to a stronger, more prosperous Hall County."

The business group has various goals, but one of their main concerns is the beautification of Atlanta Highway — a central vein into the heart of Hall County’s Latino business community.

The Times spoke with various business people in clothing, grocery and video stores along Atlanta Highway, most of whom said they had not heard of the chamber’s International Business Council.

But David Arteaga, manager of La Flor de Jalisco No. 2, said he read in Mexico Lindo, a local Spanish-language newspaper, about the business council’s recent cleanup of an area of Atlanta Highway between Jesse Jewell and Pearl Nix parkways.

The cleanup was the International Business Council’s most recent presence in the area, with about 30 people collecting between 40 to 50 bags of litter along that stretch of the road in late June, Lewis-Moss said.

"It was very nice; in fact, I was pleasantly surprised ... we had more (people) than I ever expected," Lewis-Moss said.

And more recently, Lewis-Moss said the members of the business council have been in talks with Jackson Electric Membership Corp. to obtain some of the cooperative’s outreach money to help them with the next step.

In her mind’s eye, there are a few steps ahead. First, Lewis-Moss wants the city and county marshals offices to interact with business and property owners on Atlanta Highway and offer suggestions on how to aesthetically uplift their properties.

"This is very different than a citation, which people don’t usually respond to favorably," Lewis-Moss said. "This would just be an organic dialogue, starting conversation and helping people with understanding the community desire to see the community transform.

"The quality of the businesses themselves (on Atlanta Highway) are awesome, yet external appearances may not encourage new clients, because people are visual; like it or not, that’s just the reality," Lewis-Moss said.

Adamacio Diaz, a cashier at Fiesta Latina, a special-event apparel store on Atlanta Highway, agrees that aesthetic improvements are needed in the area.

Diaz has worked inside the store for six years and thinks the building could use a coat of brighter paint.

"It’s very important that it looks clean, and everything clean is very good, I think," Diaz said. "More people, if they see the business looks better, I mean, they want to (come) in, too."

Arteaga says the appearance of the area also has to do with personal responsibility.

"We’ve still got to pull our part, too," he said.

Above nice landscaping, Arteaga said the need for sidewalks should be a priority in any efforts to help the area. Parents and children have nowhere to walk when they visit stores, he said. Arteaga would rather have sidewalks that lead to his father’s store over a new coat of paint, he said.

"If they come with a project, maybe sidewalks or something, that would be great because a lot of people walk around and there’s actually nowhere to walk around," Arteaga said.

Lewis-Moss said sidewalks are definitely a focal point of the International Small Business Council. She said many of the volunteers at the group’s recent cleanup on Atlanta Highway decided against bringing their children because of the lack of sidewalks in the area.

"We’re very much aware that the lack of sidewalks (there) is an unacceptable safety issue," Lewis-Moss said.

However, that safety issue cannot be dealt with without the cooperation of Gainesville and Hall County officials, as the highway passes in and out of the city and unincorporated Hall County.

"It has to be an agreed-upon schedule that the city and county has to work on," Lewis-Moss said. "Sometimes it takes time to get these types of projects on a calendar, but that’s the first step, to get it on someone’s calendar."

Oscar Garcia, who visited with the manager of Azteca Video & Music on Friday afternoon, said he wants to see more safety lights and parks in Latino neighborhoods.

"The city lacks a recreational center (for Hispanics), a park, " Garcia said. "There needs to be more access for Hispanics."

But others who frequent the Atlanta Highway area believe that local law enforcement affects business more than aesthetics, recreation or a lack of sidewalks.

Roberto Amaro, general manager of Azteca Video & Music on Atlanta Highway, said that some believe that there has been more of a law enforcement presence in the area recently, and many members of the community have been affected by it.

Atlanta Highway business owners, who mostly have a Latino customer base, believe they are seeing fewer people out on the streets lately, Amaro said.

Amaro said he believes fewer Latinos are walking along Atlanta Highway because they are afraid that officers will stop, ask for identification and take them to jail.

"They see Hispanics walking and they stop to harass us ... and (I think) it’s because of racism," Amaro said through a translator. "It’s because we’re Hispanic.

"If this is a free country, you can walk on the street without being asked what you’re doing."

He and Garcia said aesthetics and parks are useless when Latinos are too fearful to leave their homes.

"What good does it do (for Hispanics) if they build a park or beautify the area if we can’t even go outside to talk with neighbors or walk around?" Garcia said.

Times photographer Sara Guevara translated and contributed to this report.

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