“They’re going to burn themselves down,” Denita Townes, a former food vendor, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday. “It’s just a matter of time.”
The market is a redeveloped Target located at 8109 Mall Parkway near the Mall at Stonecrest. It’s the brainchild of businessman Lecester “Bill” Allen, the largest commercial landowner in the city, and the project was aided by a bond deal struck with the now-fledgling Stonecrest Development Authority. The market is named after the Black business district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was the site of a racist massacre a century ago.
Matt Hampton, Allen’s spokesman and director of the market, said heavy rainstorms near the end of last year led to the leaks, which are being addressed. He said the recent issues shouldn’t detract from the market’s success at quickly attracting thousands of shoppers and supporting more than 100 vendors.
“We just ask that the community, we ask that our merchants give us just a little bit of patience and give us time to rectify these problems,” Hampton said. “We’re going to get past this, and we’re going to continue to make this market all that it can be for our community and for the minority businesses that we’re growing currently.”
‘They have no professionalism’
Townes, a realtor, said she decided to run BMore Crabby out of the market at the end of last year. Her crab cake business was among the first fresh food vendors to join the project, but she said it took awhile before food operations were up to snuff.
She said the market had not installed a professional kitchen, hot water infrastructure or other commercial cooking necessities. As a result, food vendors either brought their products each day or had to cook outdoors using tents. She said the tent area would often flood, so she wasn’t surprised about the building’s recent flooding issues.
“This Target building has been sitting vacant for a very long time,” Townes said, “so it’s like a body without a soul — it starts to decay.”
Townes said management did add new gravel outside after she complained, but they also decided to increase everyone’s rent by $100 per weekend as a result. She said she was already paying $350 a week for a place in the market, which is open on Fridays through Sundays. She sent a scathing letter to management soon after, saying food vendors were “told numerous times how (they) are disposable.”
“They have no professionalism,” she told the AJC. “They are, in my opinion, just basically sucking people dry.”
Keon Hardeman, who operates Cakes by Keon, said the market’s bakery section was equally disorganized. He said he was asked to pay $250 each weekend. In addition, he was asked to pay a 35% commission on his total sales, which he said made it impossible to turn a profit.
On Nov. 21, he posted on his Instagram that he was leaving the market, becoming the first former tenant to publicly criticize the market and its management. “There is a level of professionalism that I am accustomed too,” he said in the post.
He told the AJC that most of the financial deals were verbal agreements that would change each weekend. He also complained that he was being led in circles when it came time to be paid, since the bakery section’s sales went through the market’s management instead of individual vendors.
“It took me maybe a week-and-a-half to get my money, and they didn’t give me all my money,” he said. “They sent me into circle games about who to get the rest of the money from.”
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Since the market is heavily retail-based, Hampton said Allen’s company worked quickly to ensure the market was open by last year’s holiday season. He said the quick timetable might have led to roofing issues slipping through the cracks.
“We’ve worked our asses off to make sure that they were up and operational for the holiday season,” he said. “We did have some roofing problems… we didn’t have any leaks when we started, and then some leaks happened. So we’re addressing those leaks.”
Those leaks become a prominent issue by Feb. 4, when two vendors said they were asked to leave the market when they complained. Jason Jones, who runs ATLtechspot LLC, and Cassandra Shields, whose company is Shea Butter World, said their rented spaces were flooded when they showed up to work, and their complaints were dismissed by management.
Shields filed a complaint with the city’s code enforcement. She provided the AJC with documentation that showed code enforcement did find water damage on Feb. 9.
“It kind of threw me for a loop,” Jones said, adding that the leaks became frequent whenever there was heavy rain. “I’m a homeowner. If your roof leaks, you fix it, right?”
Hampton said Jones became irate and tried to confront Allen, leading to him calling police to escort Jones off the property. He said Shields also got angry and left on her own accord.
Both vendors said the opposite happened, arguing that Allen yelled at them in front of would-be customers and berated them for complaining about the leaks and water damage.
“He started yelling and screaming at me and telling me how he was sick and tired of all of us,” Shields said.
When asked whether Allen got mad or was the one acting irate, Hampton declined to comment.
“The only people that were removed were the people who got irate about the situation and wanted to confront Mr. Allen and that kind of thing,” Hampton said. “They just didn’t create an environment that worked for us.”
Jones said he felt like management was betraying their promise — to elevate minority entrepreneurs and build a platform for them to succeed.
“It’s not the feeling of Black people being helped,” he said. “You don’t get that feeling.”