Wholesale changes as Doraville eyes future

A quiet move last year to no longer allow wholesale business on Buford Highway has gurgled up into big news in a small town, and highlighted two very different Doravilles.

In one camp are the majority of regular voters who are tied to the city's blue-collar past anchored by the now-shuttered GM plant. They support the city's plan to free up more space for retail shops or tony mixed-use development like those remaking nearby Chamblee and Norcross.

On the other side are the Latin and Asian immigrants and their families, who make up more than half of the city's population. Some own the businesses that give the city its international flair, and they worry that the move will hurt their operations.

"There is not a lot of interaction, frankly," said Bob Roche, who travels between the two worlds in a city that straddles I-285 as both a city councilman and business consultant.

And, as a resident, he understands the frustration of having to leave town to buy ketchup or mustard. The city of 11,000 has no mainstream grocery.

"The thing I hear from residents all the time is, it'd be nice to have stores in Doraville that we could shop at," Roche said. "The citizens who do the voting would like to see a Kroger, not just Asian markets."

Those markets — along with other ethnic shops and restaurants — are among the most successful businesses in the city, though, drawing customers from all over metro Atlanta and the Southeast.

City leaders said they wanted to add to that success with the zoning change, adopted last fall, as part of a bigger vision for Doraville to go from industrial city to a hub for new homes, offices and shops.

The change took effect on Jan. 1, but few took notice until this spring when new business license applications were due. Existing wholesalers were vested, but the city rejected new businesses because of the change.

Shopkeepers and commercial landlords responded by joining forces to create the Doraville Business Association to lobby the city for more input on plans to remake Doraville.

The group also plans outreach efforts with residents, said Harold Shinn, secretary of the new group and owner of the Buford Highway Farmers Market.

"I would love to see a Bruster's and a Five Guys open right down the street from me," Shinn said of the popular ice cream stand chain and burger joint. "But they have to decide businesswise, if that's for them, and so far, they haven't. The wholesale business is kind of the whipping boy for frustration over that."

Wholesalers are a key component for the city's mercados and pho noodle houses. Some are large enough to store the items those smaller operations need and sell only to retailers. Many owners mix both large wholesale operations with their own retail storefronts, open to anyone who walks in. It is often a sign of having fulfilled the American Dream to reach wholesale status.

"It's not just a family business," Jang Kim said of the 4,000-square-foot Pioneer Apparel showroom that his family started as a 500-square-foot shop in the 1980s. "It is the culmination of sacrifice."

The city respects that effort so much, it has taken great pains to plan for other locations for wholesales, said city planner Scott Haeberlin. Existing wholesalers can stay on Buford Highway, too, at least until the hoped-for new development comes and creates a corridor that feels more like a walkable town center than a busy thoroughfare.

Even then, some wholesale will remain a key part of the mix for the vision of the city's future: An intown location with a vibrant minority community and small-town feel.

"If we can get a 24-hour Doraville, with people actually walking on the street and seeing this really interesting and diverse mix of business, it would be a totally different community," Haeberlin said. "We have great potential."

On that point, business leaders agree. One goal of the new association is to hold the first "Celebrate Doraville" event to showcase what the city has to offer for residents and businesses.

More unity could be on the way. Shinn called the new zoning a wake-up call for business owners who had shunned getting involved in city activities, figuring no news was good news.

"The problem really is what are the needs of all citizens and how can they be met," he said. "It could be trying to make real ethnic food more accessible. It could be adding ketchup to the shelves."