Most, if not all, shopping centers are aimed at specific demographics. Until now minorities have often been left out of the equation. A new project that targets the Hispanic community may change all that: Atlanta's Plaza Fiesta. Situated near the busy intersection of Buford Highway and Clairmont Road, just north of the city's high rise center, the sprawling, brightly painted complex is poised to become a gathering place for the surrounding Hispanic community.

And just in time, too. "The mall was pretty much dead," says Doug McMurrain, a partner in locally based Ram Development Group, which now owns the property. "We bought it thinking we could turn it into a Home Depot or a Wal-Mart."

That thinking made a great deal of sense for a retail center that had never really caught on and found its place in the market. Originally built in 1968 as Sunshine Mall, it went through several reincarnations, first as an outlet center and most recently as Oriental Mall.

This last attempt tried to create an Asian-oriented shopping complex, but never really got off the ground. The primary concentration of Asian consumers was located a few miles further north and the surrounding area was instead acquiring a Latin flavor.

When Ram bought the property from its Vietnamese and Korean owners in 1999, most of the stores located inside the mall were closed. Only a few of the larger establishments with exterior entrances, such as Hong Kong Grocery and the two anchors, Marshall's and Burlington Coat Factory, were hanging on. Some of the tenants were even in the process of suing the former owners over issues including property maintenance.

While 1990 U.S. Census data indicates the Atlanta area has only about a 14% Hispanic population, McMurrain says there are probably 100,000 people of Hispanic descent in the area today, closer to 20% of the population of Atlanta. Many are recently arrived in the area and have relatively few retail centers to serve them and their culture.

McMurrain and his partner Vincent Riggio hit upon a concept that may just be unique in the mall business. Instead of demolishing the property and rebuilding it as just another major chain store, why not remake it into a retail, entertainment, and services center for the Hispanic community that surrounds it? To give it greater appeal, they also decided to create a Latin theme that would carry throughout the facility. Christened Plaza Fiesta, the name reflects the fact that in Hispanic culture the plaza, or town square, has always been the cultural and social focus of the community.

"The client wanted to cater to the Latin market, which is growing in that area," says Edwin Rhinehart of Atlanta-based Ozell Stankus Associates Architects, which handled the project. "They wanted to recreate the visual effect of a Mexican village with a street scene. It grew from that idea."

Rhinehart says the project involved renovating the interior of the mall to create an open market area along with cosmetic refurbishing of the exterior facade.

"Initially the project was going to be more graphically oriented," he explains. "We really thought it was going to be more of a paint up, fix up graphics kind of project than it turned out to be. The more we talked to the clients the more they were able to express what they wanted to do and where they wanted to take it."

McMurrain and Riggio had traveled to Mexico and had come back with photographs and ideas about the plazas - the vital heart of local villages - that they saw on their trip. They thought they could transfer that concept to their new property by recreating the market concept in the mall's interior.

"The idea was to take on a village center - the old shopping market area of a typical Mexican village," says Jackie Keogh of Huie Designs, the Atlanta-based firm charged with creating the environmental graphics for the mall. "These areas are colorful and energetic and things are not quite as controlled as they are here. Things have grown up randomly over time. The buildings have awnings and there are shutters on the windows. There are balconies overlooking the street."

The interior of the open market area is made up of a series of modules or booths for each tenant, constructed of a series of six-foot-by-six-foot wooden posts and beams that the tenants use to build their own walls and use as a frame work to hang displays or merchandise.

"Essentially it's a module that was designed to create a series of aisle ways and booth spaces for these tenants to rent out," explains Rhinehart. "It's creating a pergola or arbor effect to which their merchandise is connected."

The architects and designers worked with a local set design company that built the facades that now line one side of the main thoroughfare in the mall.

"The contractor (Atlanta's Winter Construction) had worked with this set design company on another project, so he recommended we look at that option rather than building it out of studs and boards and plaster and brick," says Rhinehart. "It would be more of a paneled system like they have on stage sets. The facades were built on a steel framework to which the panels are attached. So, it fools the eye with the effect."

The set builder, Atlanta-based Camera Ready Art Inc., had constructed many stages for locally produced TV shows and trade exhibitions using this process, and the builders found their construction method was able to provide an attractive, yet low-cost alternative to traditional means of building.

Merchants occupy these market spaces on either a full- or part- time basis. A few are at Plaza Fiesta selling their wares everyday, while most only open up during the busy weekend when the mall really does take on the look of a town market.

Plaza Fiesta is now a work in progress. Work has slowed on the $5 million renovation project. The Mexican village theme is complete on only one side of the mall's interior. The rest of the mall will be finished in a white washed look reminiscent of the adobe dwellings found in the Mexican deserts.

The end of the building anchored by Marshall's has been refurbished and painted in bright, vivid colors. At the other end, the Burlington anchor is still much as it has always been. "All faded and sad looking," says Keogh. McMurrain says that Burlington has committed to refurbishing their end "thirty days after their new lease is signed."

In addition, more construction work is underway that will create a nightclub that hopefully will attract top level Latin performers. On an upper level near Burlington, office spaces are underway for real estate, mortgage companies, law offices, and other services geared to the Hispanic community.

The two partners have clearly embarked on a quest to create a new kind of shopping mall that is not only a collection of stores, but also a vital part of the cultural and social life of the area. In addition, they think they can make money at the same time.

"It says quite a bit about the level of risk and vision that the owner had in wanting to do that when there is no physical model of this type of project," says Ozell Stankus' Ken Higa. "It's taking that theme that you see in restaurants and taking it to the mall level. It's the complete look and feel of Mexico on a limited budget. It's a unique project. We saw how it looked before when it was really dead and it's been a big change."

Participants in the project say that no one has taken an entire mall and given it a theme as they are doing with Plaza Fiesta. "Stores have a theme, restaurants have a theme, and smaller sq. ft areas have theme," says Higa. "It's a different approach to a mall renovation. The theme works because it's in a growing Hispanic community."

Of course, according to U.S. Census data, the entire United States is a growing Hispanic community. It is projected that by 2050 some 25% of the country's population will be of Hispanic descent, compared to just more than 10% today.

With these kind of rapidly growing demographics, retailers and developers can ill afford to ignore the purchasing power of the Hispanic community. We may see more and more shopping centers target the Hispanic community in the years to come, and Plaza Fiesta is leading the way.