U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock hears from Latino business owners

Credit: Tyler Wilkins

Credit: Tyler Wilkins

Veronica Triana and Victor Rivas saw sales plummet at their artisan crafts and gifts store like other small business owners during the worst economic months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The husband and wife owners of Arte Terrestre watched other businesses in Plaza Las Americas shut their doors as less people frequented the Pleasant Hill Road mall.

The duo’s store is now faring better financially, as more people feel comfortable leaving their homes to purchase nonessential items. But the owners felt reassured that a U.S. senator stopped by to check on their needs.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat who took office this year, visited the Latino-themed Plaza Las Americas mall in Lilburn on Monday to chat with local business owners and hear their concerns more than a year into the pandemic.

The senator, during a coordinated visit, stressed the importance of overcoming the pandemic through vaccinations, improving public transportation and expanding health care coverage to help small businesses. He also tried on hats, purchased a Mexican doll for his daughter and sampled dishes from the food court.

Credit: Tyler Wilkins

Credit: Tyler Wilkins

“I learned as a pastor that it’s really the people who teach you how to best serve,” Warnock said. “In order to do that, you’ve got to understand their concerns.”

More than 100 businesses operate in small storefronts within the 4-year-old Plaza Las Americas. They took a major hit during the pandemic, said property manager Arturo Adonay, but hard work and financial assistance helped many of its businesses weather the storm.

Adonay started managing the mall only a few days before the pandemic forced the nation into lockdown. Only 30% of storefronts were occupied at that time, he said, compared to 95% today.

Expanding public transportation options into the area would not only help the shopping mall but the entire Pleasant Hill corridor, Adonay said. Warnock hyped the federal $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal for its potential to connect residents with small businesses like the ones in Plazas Las Americas.

The senator also mentioned his work on the Medicaid Saves Lives Act, which would create a “look-a-like” program for the 12 states, including Georgia, that did not expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The expansion could create up to 65,000 jobs, Warnock said, and give coverage to thousands of Georgians.

“What I take away (from this visit) is just how hardworking these folks are,” Warnock said. “They’re here doing the best that they can... We need to get the pandemic under control — that’s the main thing right now — and provide these folks the support that they need so they can move toward thriving.”

Credit: Tyler Wilkins

Credit: Tyler Wilkins

Besides their financial concerns, the mall and its tenants hope to find ways to “bridge the gap” between white and non-white communities in Gwinnett County, Adonay said. Hispanic- and Latino-owned businesses are often overlooked and receive less attention than other businesses, Triana said.

“I think there is a big barrier between Hispanics and white people,” Triana said. “I know that white people love our culture, but most of them don’t come as often as they should to these kinds of places.”

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