“I come here every chance I get,” Gwen Maggitt said on a recent Saturday as she walked to a bookstore.
Allen modeled his idea after the historic Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The Greenwood district, also known as Black Wall Street, burned down in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, as a mob of whites murdered dozens of Black residents and displaced a thriving community. Allen sought to open the Stonecrest market in late May to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the massacre, but it would be delayed until Halloween weekend last year.
Still, the market was an instant hit, with most of its 118 vendor spaces landing tenants and more than 10,000 attendees on its opening weekend, perusing stalls along New Orleans-themed aisles named after famous Black entrepreneurs.
The market is currently 85% leased, with vendors selling everything from bedazzled clothes to vegan ice cream. There’s also a jazz club and a grocery store named after Allen’s son, Aaron, who died two years ago. A food court and two sit-down restaurants are also in the works.
That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges. Reports of a leaky roof, combative management and scorned former tenants tarnished its first year. And Allen has yet to move forward on future phases.
Credit: Christina Matacotta
Credit: Christina Matacotta
But so far, the New Black Wall Street Market has been largely seen as a bright light for a city in desperate need of one.
In a headline-grabbing bid, city officials tried — and failed — to woo Amazon’s “HQ2″ in 2018, offering free land and to rename the city after the e-commerce juggernaut. Atlanta Sports City, an audacious project centered around dozens of sports fields, shops and restaurants, also never got off the ground, spawning a string of lawsuits in 2019.
Stonecrest’s founding mayor, Jason Lary, was also embroiled in a scandal over theft of COVID-19 relief funds from small businesses and churches — an act for which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to more than four years in prison.
Matt Hampton, Allen’s spokesman and market manager, said Stonecrest has momentum, and the past year has been a learning experience. He said Allen’s goal is for 1 million visitors by its second anniversary.
“It’s been a lot of learning, a lot of ups and downs,” Hampton said. “But it’s been ultimately a very successful year.”
Finding a home in Stonecrest
While not a Stonecrest resident, Allen is one of the city’s most influential stakeholders.
The Arkansas native broke into real estate and daycare management in Detroit and moved to south DeKalb about 20 years ago. He established the Allen Entrepreneurial Institute, which supports minority-owned small businesses. Since then, Allen, 76, has amassed the city’s largest commercial property portfolio.
When Stonecrest incorporated, it was an anomaly among metro Atlanta’s burgeoning cityhood movement. Several wealthy, mostly white communities followed in the footsteps of Sandy Springs, which became a city in 2005. Stonecrest and the city of South Fulton stood as the only majority-Black cities to join that movement.
Now, Stonecrest has nearly 60,000 residents, making it the most populous in DeKalb. African Americans make up roughly 90% of its population.
Residents have yearned to make the city a destination along I-20, leveraging nearby Arabia Mountain and the Mall at Stonecrest. The mall is undergoing its own transformation, with a vacant Sears store converting into an aquarium and retail and entertainment concept called Privi.
Hampton said the New Black Wall Street Market is another attraction.
“We ultimately have the makings of a little tourist center,” he said.
The complex has grown to be Stonecrest’s premier event space, recently serving as a campaign stop for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.
Events are the “lifeblood of this place,” Hampton said, and the long-term success of the market will require at least two large events each week to drive foot traffic.
On a recent Saturday, the market was buzzing with shoppers and merchants.
David Wilson operates one of the largest vendor spaces. In May, he and his wife, Gwen, opened Blingspirations, a store filled with custom clothes decorated with jewelry.
“We heard about the New Black Wall Street and we know that (Stonecrest) started to look like more of an up-and-coming area again,” David Wilson said. The Wilsons dabbled with mall kiosks.
“We saw this is an opportunity to get our feet wet as far as a storefront,” he said.
About two months ago, they tore down a wall and expanded into the neighboring shop to show off their expanded product line.
Henry Carter opened Tree of Knowledge Bookstore in March. He pays $1,200 in rent a month, which might seem like a lot for space the size of a small bedroom. But he said it’s a “no brainer” compared to mall kiosk rents. Carter said he hopes vendors’ brands will grow along with the market’s visibility.
“We’re still one of the best kept secrets in Atlanta,” he said. “We need to not be a secret anymore.”
‘We’re going to fight’
If Allen can realize his vision for New Black Wall Street Market’s future, Stonecrest won’t be such a secret.
Future phases include an “International Village,” which includes a 16-story hotel and an entertainment complex.
But that project has been slowed by some of the pandemic and political turmoil that’s battered Stonecrest.
The first phase of New Black Wall Street Market received a tax break from the Stonecrest Development Authority, whose board was filled by appointees of Lary, the former mayor. Allen was briefly one of those appointees, but he stepped down nine months before the board took its first vote.
Allen’s company later got a second lucrative tax break for the future International Village, the only two deals the authority made before it went dormant amid a federal investigation of the former mayor.
Allen has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but critics say the tax breaks were sweetheart deals. The authority eliminated property taxes on New Black Wall Street Market for 12 years, followed by another decade of reduced taxes.
After the AJC published an in-depth article on the development authority in February, the Stonecrest City Council asked all authority board members to resign, effectively dissolving the authority.
Stonecrest’s new mayor, Jazzmin Cobble, said reappointing members to the authority remains on “our list of things to fix.” Though Allen supported other candidates against Cobble and her city council allies, she said the New Black Wall Street Market has served the city well so far.
“As long as it continues to serve in that capacity, enhancing quality of life and giving opportunity to those who surely deserve it, it will have an effect on our economic development ecosystem,” she said. “That’s all we can ask for.”
Hampton said Allen plans to uphold his half of the bargain and is currently raising funds for the project, which he aims to begin developing by 2024.
Hampton said the New Black Wall Street Market is effectively the “pilot project” for that larger development, and he said Allen will not let it fail.
“We’ve learned that we’re tough as (expletive) and we’re going to fight,” Hampton said. “We have put up a fight to keep this place alive and to make sure that it’s creating a win-win for everybody.”