A new Latino-themed mall will test the depth of the Hispanic market as well as Charlotte’s
readiness to accept it
Photo by Chris Edwards
With Mecklenburg County ranking as the second-fastest-growing Latino community in the state, Adonay (pictured) hopes the $30 million Latino-themed Plaza Fiesta will appeal to not only Latinos but all groups of people. – Chris Edwards
In an all but abandoned shopping center just south of the North Carolina-South Carolina border, Capital City Development is breaking ground on the American dream. The old Crossroads Mall—in the shadow of Carowinds’ Thunder Road roller coaster in Fort Mill, South Carolina—is undergoing a $30 million transformation. Managing partner Arturo Adonay and his team are completely reimagining the space as a Latino-themed mall slated to open its doors this month as Plaza Fiesta Carolinas.
“Plaza Fiesta is not just a shopping center, it’s a destination,” Adonay says from his headquarters in the still-under-construction mall. “We will provide the American dream. You can have a place for your business, a place for entertainment, and buy your own home.”
also evidence that the Latino market has become a force to be reckoned with. The three-phase project starts with a 350,000-square-foot retail center, expands to include a 3,000-seat sports complex debuting in the spring, and culminates in a proposed residential community a couple of years down the line, all aimed at the South’s burgeoning Latino population. All told, the project’s cost could exceed $60 million.
The developers first tested the concept of a Latino-centered shopping mall in Atlanta, and the success of Plaza Fiesta Atlanta drove them to expand their vision. “The experiences that we got out of that project we are bringing to this project,” Adonay says of the learning curve from Georgia to the Carolinas. “It is a refinement of our concept, and we hope to avoid making the same mistakes here.” By positioning the new development right off the interstate and including a broader array of services, Adonay says this second attempt will be bigger and better than the Atlanta prototype. Marketed as a place for family gatherings, cultural exchange, and good old American commerce, Plaza Fiesta Carolinas is poised to take advantage of the area’s growth and test Charlotte’s readiness for international fare.
With cobblestone streets and sidewalks, sunny skylights, and brightly painted mosaic facades, the mercado, or market, at Plaza Fiesta Carolinas promises to bring the look and feel of Mexico’s open-air markets to the old Crossroads Mall. Adonay says he took his team to Mexico to photograph the real-life mercados of his childhood in Mexico City. “If I show you the photos and that wall when it is completed and painted, it will look exactly the same,” he says, gesturing toward a façade where workers balanced on a scaffold are creating a vibrant mosaic-tile look. “Here we can bring to our customers the variety of music, colors, and atmosphere of the many Latino countries without having to leave the States.”
A colorful playground big enough to accommodate several hundred kids will be a main feature of the mall’s central plaza. “The families can come and eat at the restaurants, shop, and watch their children play,” Adonay says. “The Latino population brings to Charlotte an emphasis on spending time with family,” says Astrid Chirinos, a leading voice in the business community.” The former chair of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce currently serves on several area economic boards and says the Latino community is enriching the Charlotte region both economically and culturally. “They are adding another layer of interest to the texture of the community,” she says. “They are bringing a new influence that is very family oriented.” Chirinos says she finds it refreshing that other Charlotteans can rediscover values like family time thanks to their Latino neighbors.
The family-friendly atmosphere of Plaza Fiesta doesn’t disguise that this is in fact a commercial venture. Established fixtures of American malls including Bass and Van Heusen will make up what Adonay calls the traditional wing of the retail center, anchored by Gaffney-based department store Hamrick’s. The central plaza will house the “nontraditional” tenants like clothing store owner Maria Rosario Lopez, who moved to the States from Mexico City in 1988. “I think it is a good opportunity for us, principally Hispanics,” Lopez says, speaking more comfortably in her native Spanish. She says the Carolinas have no real gathering place for Latino merchants and families. “I think the first is going to be successful.” And with about 95 percent of the first phase already preleased, she’s not the only small-business owner staking her luck on the concept.
Adonay promises his full support for these first-time entrepreneurs. “Our main customer is of course the people we can draw in, but it’s also our tenants,” he says. “Shoulder to shoulder, you know?” The mall has designated 4,000 square feet of meeting rooms to house computer classes, events, and representatives from Latino support agencies like the consulates of various Latin American countries. “Our small tenants don’t have much experience, and we help them in order for them to succeed,” he says.
Tenants say the location is another prime reason they anticipate success. “The location is great, close to [interstates] 77 and 485 and Carowinds,” Jose Vidal, a twenty-year veteran of the jewelry business, says of the new home for his fine jewelry store. “It just needed someone to take over the old mall and invest some money into it. It’s going to do very well.”
Adonay emphasizes the proximity to the interstate as an asset for a development seeking a regional audience. And while that regional audience may be primarily Latino, he stresses the attraction for the broader community. “We have a Latin name, so when we talk about community, people think we mean the Latino community,” he observes. “But my personal point of view is I came here, I need to do everything to blend in, to learn the language, the culture… We want to be part of the community, and to offer, to showcase our culture to you.” Adonay says he expects his tenants to learn English and find success in the American business world, and he believes they can do this while offering a taste of Latin America to consumers of all ethnic backgrounds, not just fellow Latinos.
Nonetheless, it was the growth rate of the area’s Latino population that motivated the developers to choose the Fort Mill property, just over the Mecklenburg County line, as the site for their second Plaza Fiesta. “Based on the numbers and the census, Mecklenburg—and correct me if I’m wrong—is one of the counties in the States with the highest growth of Hispanics or Latinos,” Adonay says. He’s not wrong. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Mecklenburg County ranks as the county with the second-fastest-growing Latino community in the state, behind only Wake County, the nation’s number two in terms of Latino population growth.
The area’s Latino population isn’t just growing, it’s spending. In the Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord metro area, Latinos command more than $2 billion in buying power, or expendable income after taxes, according to the Institute of Minority Economic Development’s 2006 study. Overall, North Carolina’s Latino community contributes $9 billion to the state economy, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill concluded in a 2006 study.
Nearby business owners say they are optimistic that the revamped mall will bring these dollars into their stores as well.
Jennifer Rockholt manages Frugal MacDoogal, the wine and liquor superstore just across the parking lot from the mall. “The mall was wasted space before,” she says. “I like to think that it’s going to bring in people of all types, not just one type, to the area. I’m hopeful that it will send more people over here. I’m certainly not worried.” But other businesspeople are less certain that the mall will be a positive addition to the area. “I’ll be interested to see,” Harold Roddey, the manager of Fireworks World, says. “The mall was kind of dead already, so there should be more activity, more business. I don’t know if that will be for the better or not.”
Local leaders say that some distrust often accompanies a new culture as it begins to make its mark on Charlotte. “We have to learn to value difference,” Chirinos says. “If we want to be a world-class city, we can’t have a small-town attitude.” She says Plaza Fiesta will be a good litmus test of how ready Charlotte is to go international. And she’s confident we’ll pass, noting that the Plaza Fiesta management should help reinforce the public’s perception that Latinos add to the vibrancy of the community. “Hopefully the management will become stakeholders in the community and engage the community as a whole,” Chirinos says.
York County officials say Capital City’s management has already demonstrated a commitment to community stewardship. “The new owners have been very cooperative in looking at some of the problems that we’ve had in the past,” says Undersheriff Robert Hudgins of the York County Sheriff’s Department. He says the owners “went out of their way” to ensure that the spectators watching Carowinds’ annual Fourth of July fireworks display from the mall parking lot were kept safe and secure. “They had signs posted and they supplied staff to control access to the area,” Hudgins says, noting that in past years rowdy revelers had set off illegal fireworks, sparking fires that emergency vehicles had difficulty reaching amid the crowds.
Adonay and his team have charmed area merchants and authorities, attracted nearly a full house of tenants, and promised an aggressive marketing plan to draw visitors (and their wallets) from across the region. For an ailing mall that was once hemorrhaging tenants, the prognosis looks good. “Honestly I am very excited about it, but at the same time it is a big challenge,” he says, smiling. “I dream big.”