This story was originally published by Canapy Atlanta, a community-powered journalism nonprofit.
DeKalb exists as two counties in one.
North DeKalb flourishes with the ongoing development of high-end restaurants, shopping centers, coffee shops, and theaters. South DeKalb, on the other hand, has experienced stagnant growth for decades. The area’s majority Black population have few options for necessities, quality shopping, and entertainment. South DeKalb’s median household income is also lower, which contributes to a poverty rate that is higher than Georgia’s average.
The DeKalb County 2050 Unified Plan—the county’s long-term plans for housing and economic development, transportation, and more—acknowledges that divide. “Some parts of central and south DeKalb lack adequate retail and employment options,” the plan says. “DeKalb’s economic growth has been uneven and primarily in north DeKalb and parts of central DeKalb.”
The plan also notes that out of the county’s four malls, the Gallery at South DeKalb “may require the most attention” after multiple anchor tenants shuttered in recent years.
While the food services industry is currently the biggest driver of South DeKalb’s economy, other big-budget developments may change the area’s business landscape.
The forthcoming Electric Owl Studios aspires to become the greenest movie studio in the world, using solar panels and rainwater capture to offset utility costs. Electric Owl, the expansion of film production company Shadowbox Studios, and a new Home Depot flatbed delivery center “represent over $400 million in investments and will bring more than 2,000 jobs to the area,” says Terra Washington, vice president of marketing and communications at Decide DeKalb, the county’s development arm.
Last year, Namdar Realty Group bought the Gallery at South DeKalb for $19.3 million. But change, according to some business owners at the mall, is happening at a snail’s pace. And in the South River Forest, the expansion of Shadowbox Studios and the construction of a $90 million police training facility that critics call “Cop City” have caused backlash due to effects those developments could have on the environment, among other factors.
For now, business owners in South DeKalb continue to wait for support and resources as they serve and invest in their own neighborhood.
Canopy Atlanta spoke with several business owners in South DeKalb who shared their thoughts on the business opportunities they see in the community—and what’s needed from DeKalb County for sustained economic growth. These stories are in their own voices, as told to A.R. Shaw.
These interviews were edited for length and clarity.
Mustafa Meekins, Owner, Mustafa’s Boxing Gym
On most days, you can walk into Mustafa’s Boxing Gym and see young people ages five to 17 learning the fundamentals of boxing. Owned by Mustafa Meekins, the gym is located on a stretch of Glenwood Road where gas stations and liquor stores are plentiful, but there is a lack of facilities geared toward uplifting the community.
I wanted to put something over here in one of the rougher areas. I try to give a lot of people something to do. A lot of kids get out of school and they aren’t doing anything. They can come here for two or three hours and they’re doing something positive.
When I was a kid, I loved boxing. I ended up straying, but boxing was what helped me stay out of trouble. The kids can come in here, they don’t have to be a gangbanger. You can be a nice, solid dude. And young women too. They can learn how to defend themselves, be in shape, be confident, and positive.
I’d love to teach 100 kids — start them from babies on up and get them to maintain good grades, help them to learn how to box and train. Boxing is fun. They get to travel for boxing tournaments; we travel somewhere every weekend. We go all over the country. We can have positive outlets for them.
I like taking the kids around to see different cities and take them to places like an African American museum so they can get a sense of pride.
When it comes to North DeKalb and South DeKalb, it’s like night and day. I’m on Glenwood Road, and there is nothing for the kids to do. What they see primarily is poverty, gangs, and homelessness. For youngsters, this becomes normal instead of seeing Black excellence. In North DeKalb, you see clean parking lots and people striving to be great. And I’m pretty sure they’re getting funding to help them keep it that way. Over here, it’s nothing. I’ve been here for four years and can’t get help from anyone.
But these young kids have opportunities to be who they want to be. So kids from South DeKalb shouldn’t be overlooked. They deserve the same resources to help them be the best they can be.
Demetrise Swain, Owner, ATL Vape City
Longtime South DeKalb resident Demetrise Swain opened ATL Vape City on Candler Road in 2019.
I was the first person to open up this type of store on this street, so there was a need for it. They were knocking on the doors, and we didn’t have the store finished yet. So once the doors opened, the business was flowing. In the beginning, I didn’t have the funds to do a lot of advertising or the funds to do a big billboard. Once the pandemic happened and people were no longer able to go to clubs, lounges, and venues, they started coming here.
I was familiar with this area. I grew up in parts of Lithonia and parts of Decatur. Starting a new business, you have to find somewhere where your overhead is not going to be too high. In the higher market areas, this kind of business is oversaturated.
This area is growing, but you still have hotspots. I’m sitting right in a hotspot. There are guys I have to chase away from here, because what they do is loiter. Sometimes people can’t even get out of their cars because somebody is in their faces asking them for a dollar or two. I think it would be very good if the plazas have a certain type of security, because we turn into security. And some of them don’t care. They are coming back in the next hour. They’ll be right back, doing whatever they do to annoy you or annoy your customers. It’s not a lot of violent crime, it’s more loitering.
It shouldn’t be so hard for you to find out how to get grants, free grants, and help to start a business. It shouldn’t be so taboo. You have to jump through hoops to find out how to get a grant, how to get a grant written to get you some funds. It shouldn’t be that hard.
When I first started, most of the stuff that I saw in terms of getting funding, you had to already be in business. The best way for you to get some money now is for you to establish your business credit. But you have to have a business first to do that.
There should be more startup money for new business owners. If you have pretty decent credit, a good work history, and you’re good on paper as far as haven’t committed any felonies, I think you should be able to get some type of business loan.
For those who want to invest in South DeKalb, do a big investment like a whole plaza where you own the plaza, and you can pick and choose what you want to have in your community.
Elsabeth Ayele, Owner, Queen Sheba Fashion
After years of owning a business in Philadelphia, Elsabeth Ayele moved down south and opened her women’s boutique, Queen Sheba Fashion, at the Gallery at South DeKalb.
I discovered that the Gallery at South DeKalb does better financially than Stonecrest Mall and Greenbriar Mall. You have to study before you open a business, so that’s why I came here. This mall is very old, so it’s known by people. They still love this mall, but it needs a lot of work. There are not a lot of restaurants here.
I knew that if I could start a business in South DeKalb it would allow me to help the community. It allows me to hire students and give them jobs. I’d rather spend money in my community.
I’m doing OK financially. It’s not that great, but we can survive. Other business owners say the same things. On the weekends, we make better money. More people come out.
The owners of the Gallery at South DeKalb should work on the food court. That would bring more people. There used to be a lot of seafood and chicken restaurants in the food court last year, but it’s not like that anymore. I just heard there was a new pizza place, so maybe more people will come and shop for longer hours and enjoy the food court. [Editor’s note: That pizza place is Doughboy Pizza, created by Erica Barrett; radio host Ryan Cameron is the restaurant’s first franchisee in Atlanta.]
There should be more advertising. If there is no advertising, people will not come out. And they need bigger stores. Macy’s closed down, and now there are like three or four stores that will be gone by the end of this month. That scares me. If businesses are leaving, that’s not good.
Kirk Matters, Owner, 360 Fixx
In 2009, Kirk Matters opened his cellphone and computer shop, now called 360 Fixx, after he noticed that residents in South DeKalb often traveled miles to get basic cellphone and computer repairs. Matters believes that by setting an example, he can inspire other business owners and developers to invest in South DeKalb.
When I first surveyed this area, there really wasn’t much going on as far as businesses that repair both cellphones and computers. I searched around and then found the location and felt that I would be able to serve this community.
I don’t live in South DeKalb, but I served as a mentor for Columbia High School. They would send students out to different business owners and they’d shadow the business owners, and get training in different areas of business. Starting in 2015, I would mentor students.
Growth has been pretty steady each year. With other businesses popping up, that brings more business. I’ve spoken to quite a few business owners, and some just need access to capital to help them get over the hump.
I bootstrapped everything. I didn’t receive any funding. I didn’t really look into receiving funding. I think more people would be in business in our neighborhoods if it were more information about receiving help in terms of funding.
I do see growth in the community. There’s a couple of empty storefronts, but overall, this area is up-and-coming.
I think entrepreneurs should survey what they have to offer and make sure it’s a good match. That’s the number one thing. And then, after making sure it’s a match, make sure that your price points are a match as well. You have to find a good middle ground.
Norman Trawick, Owner, Fresh Treats Gourmet Bistro
In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly a third of adults and one in five high school students in DeKalb County were affected by obesity. The following year, Norman Trawick opened Fresh Treats Gourmet Bistro on Glenwood Road, providing healthier choices like veggie stir-fry and grilled salmon to community members of all ages.
When Michelle Obama started that “Let’s Move” campaign, when she was advising schools to eat healthier, that kind of made us go into that lane. We also do school lunches at the Ron Clark Academy. So if we can bring that concept to school, we can bring it to our community. And if people see the kids eat healthier, they’re prone to eat healthier. Because we’re more than just hot dogs, hamburgers, fish sticks, or chicken.
We want some balance to what we’re doing in our community. We shouldn’t have to go to Buckhead or Alpharetta or the north side. Healthier food options should be right over here in DeKalb on Glenwood.
You’ve had a lot of entrepreneurs popping up since the pandemic and discovering that they don’t have to work a 9-to-5. When the pandemic hit, people started going back to different resources and finding different ways to make their money. And a lot of entrepreneurs came forth. I’m so proud of a lot of my brothers and sisters. It’s not something that can happen from A to B, it’s a journey.
When we started, we got it out of the mud. We saved every dime and every nickel and planned steps that were calculated. And we stuck to our script. We now know about particular services to get funding from the county and business grants. But the first time around, it wasn’t any of that.
There should be more money for small businesses. Bigger companies can withstand things that happen. They go bankrupt and can come back under a new name. … Thank God, we have been able to sustain a lot of the stuff that’s been going on.
I live not too far from this area. I needed a kitchen to cook lunches for the charter schools. Once we started preparing school lunches, my daughter said, “Daddy, you need to prepare some of the food we eat at home.” That’s what made us jump from that sector into our own business. It was the perfect opportunity right here on Glenwood.
We have been here eight years strong. Some people asked, “Why did you come to Glenwood?” I responded, “Why not?” Glenwood needs love. Glenwood needs attention, so let’s give it to them.
Canopy Atlanta asked over 50 South DeKalb community members about the journalism they needed. This story emerged from that feedback. Canopy Atlanta also trains and pays community members, our Fellows, to learn reporting skills to better serve their community. Support our community-powered work today.