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Fort Mill Home to a Slice of Latin America

In the 1980s, Fort Mill, South Carolina, was best known for Heritage USA - the headquarters for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's PTL empire. Today, Fort Mill is the home of the Charlotte Knights Triple A baseball team. And Fort Mill is also home to another popular spot that attracts a diverse group of people. It's called Plaza Fiesta, where customers get more than a sampling of Latin America. The signs are all in Spanish with English translations. And there are lots of items sold at the mall that don't stock the shelves of most American stores. There's plenty of baked items you might find in Mexico, electronics, soccer jerseys and all colors of cowboy boots. But perhaps the most striking feature is the mall's design. From the outside it looks like a big barn of warehouse in the shadow of Carowinds' rollercoasters. Inside it looks like a village square in Mexico with a definite touch of Disney. There are different colored storefronts, a fountain in the Central Mercado and cobblestone floors. "This is similar like my country-for the structure, for the people, the music" says Ynes Gamarra. The native of Peru explains, "A lot of other malls in this country are different, are quiet." Gamorra is the type of customer the mall's owners had in mind when they set out to build Plaza Fiesta-someone who moved here from a Latin American country or maybe whose parents did. For Gamorra and many others it's not only the merchandise, and the Spanish-speaking vendors that are the draw. She comes here often for festivals and to hear Latin American pop stars. This is not the clientele that frequent most of the malls Sean Slater designs. He's an Atlanta architect who up until Plaza Fiesta worked on large high-end malls in the U-S, China, and Dubai. Slater says when he was approached to do a mall like this for the first time, he thought, "What have I gotten myself in to?" But Slater says designing Plaza Fiesta allowed his firm a different type of creativity. "In a typical mall design the mall tenants, the Gaps and the Banana Republics, and the Victoria Secrets of the world have an incredible amount of power," he explains. "There's not a lot of room to experiment because they know it's worked in the past for them and basically they're going to have the same formula over and over again. So it's very constraining in a typical mall to try and do anything out of the norm. With these small tenants there are no rules." Plaza Fiesta consists of dozens of stores operating out of 10 by 10 foot spaces and few much larger spaces occupied by chain stores. Slater says this is the first business for many of the tenants who receive coaching and business advice from one of the mall's owners. To figure out how to arrange these small shops in a town-like setting, Slater traveled to Mexico and took pictures of the paving stones, manhole covers, cornices, windows, and balconies. "We spent weeks and weeks trying to get the pavers to feel just like the streets of Mexico City. We spent a lot of time making a lot of traditional forms out what is essentially Styrofoam," he recounts. The end result--Plaza Fiesta opened in December of last year, modeled roughly on the one in Atlanta. Slater says developers are already eyeing other cities that might be ripe for a mall geared towards Latino customers. "I think the concept is boundless when you look at the demographic of the U-S changing and growing," he says. "There are a lot of places especially across the middle of the country where the customer is not being served where were looking at." New census data show the Carolinas have one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the country. Still in an area that is about 8% Latino Slater says the mall needs other customers to survive. On weekdays, the crowd is mostly non-Latino, but on the weekends, Plaza Fiesta's busiest times, the mall is filled with those who grew up speaking Spanish. A regular customer at the mall wonders why more non-Latinos don't come. "Here you have everything," he says. "It's cheaper, the clothes, you have the radio, TV, the foods, the special foods." Attracting non-Latinos may be one of the bigger challenges for a mall that bills itself as a slice of Latin America. Still it's popular with many people who know the real thing.