How Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Key To Rethinking Dying Retail Spaces
Plaza Garland is an indoor marketplace where mariachi bands play regularly and merchants sell everything from Mexican ice cream and custom-made piñatas to gold jewelry and handmade toys.
It's nothing like the old Kmart that used to stand in its place.
The building sat empty and abandoned after the struggling retailer jumped ship more than a decade ago.
» MAP | Get directions to Plaza Garland
Elena Lopez sells crystals, charms and an array of colored candles in her small botanica.
"People always come for good luck candles and good luck oils and incense," she says. "Each saint has their candle and specific color and specific prayers."
In the back of the plaza, 56-year-old Armando Farias tends to his stall, stocked with ornate clay ceramics, huarache sandals and other Mexican goods.
Many of the items in his shop are from his home state of Michoacán. Wooden toys from his childhood, like the balero and trompo, hang from the shelves.
"We try to help the artisans back home," he says. "They make the least and work the hardest. More than anything, we want the kids growing up here to keep learning about their culture."
He hopes the business will help maintain him and his wife as they near retirement age.
Why Plaza Garland succeeds
There's a strong cultural identity at Plaza Garland that sets it apart from big-box stores and malls. But its success isn't a coincidence.
City officials struggled for more than a decade to revitalize the commercial center before the plaza opened in 2017.
David Gwin leads the city's Economic Development office.
"When regional retail was a primary driver, it was a different economic model," Gwin says. "That has gone away, and now, you're seeing a lot more entrepreneurship and a lot more smaller-scale economic activity that continues to thrive and drive these special districts."
The city has several of these special districts, which have been singled out as areas with economic potential.
In the case of Plaza Garland, Gwin says that meant changing zoning codes to let the former Kmart accommodate more than 100 small-scale vendors.
Georgia Tech professor Ellen Dunham-Jones says new immigrant businesses benefit from that process.
Dunham-Jones studies the ways cities with outdated suburban spaces are turning them into something new.
"It's the economic opportunity that it really is providing a lot of local business," she says. "It's really important certainly for new immigrants to participate in the local economy, but also to build a local economy."
She says the retail that is surviving and, in some cases, thriving is retail that offers an experience you can't get online.
Mercados — marketplaces catered to and often run by local Latino communities — have proven to be a successful strategy for failing brick-and-mortar spaces across North Texas.
Efforts from cities and local entrepreneurs are important, but Dunham-Jones says it's ultimately on the property owners to make way for innovation.
But, not all locations are created equal.
Why other ventures struggle
A drab Midtown office off of Interstate 635 will likely be the final resting place for Neri Hernandez's bodega.
"El Rincón Hispano is over," she says.
She's stuffed everything that's left into a space that's no more than 100 square feet. A small fridge filled with Topo Chico and Jarritos sits in one corner, and the adjacent shelves are crowded with Mexican candies like marzipan and spicy mango lollipops.
Hernandez and her husband are also trying to run their taekwondo school out of this office. It's their family business, and it's drifted in and out of different homes in Plano to North Dallas for more than a decade.
Until recently, both the school and the bodega were on the first floor of the Valley View Center a few miles away.
"We wanted to bring some of our culture to the mall," Hernandez says about the bodega. "I was going to sell a lot. I was going to have opportunities to grow a nice space. This part of town had potential."
She was optimistic, but she wasn't naive.
When the pair moved into the mall in 2010, it had already fallen out of favor with Dallas consumers. Hernandez knew setting up shop there was a risk, but a reasonable rent and the potential of future renovations pulled her and her husband in.
This January, the mall's owners sent them — and all the remaining tenants — a notice to vacate. Hernandez says she had a month to pack her things and leave.
"It crippled the business," Hernandez says. "They can't really feel for the tenants because they didn't know us."
A big mall flanked by a major highway faces challenges that are different from a small suburban center, but the need to innovate is just as important.
Gwin says embracing Garland's changing demographics was the key to turning Plaza Garland around.
So to take some of these large spaces and adapt them for that new footprint, particularly as it relates to entrepreneurship, is a much more inviting opportunity.
An opportunity that many say has benefitted the city and spaces Plaza Garland, as well as the budding immigrants doing business inside.