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Little Five Points' chain-link demise

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Little Five Points is changing, whether it wants to or not. The Sept. 30 opening of a Starbucks coffee shop will mean more than just some competition for locally owned Aurora Coffee. And $50 million in new-home construction will bring an influx of the affluent into an area that believes itself too hip to sell out.

For more than 20 years, property owners obeyed an unwritten law only discussed in whispers: do not let chain stores or franchises in Little Five Points. The edict stemmed from a vision shared by the area's Bohemian settlers in the late '70s.

"There has always been an emphasis on small, independent businesses. The philosophy is that they are more a part of the community; they're more responsive to the neighborhood," says Don Bender, who's owned, developed and managed properties in the area since 1977.

Bender says most chains use a cookie-cutter approach that leads to generic retail districts. Little Five is one of the most eclectic districts in Atlanta because of the vision, he says.

He isn't leery of Starbucks because it has a reputation as a good corporate citizen. But the unwritten law has been broken, and the vision, some fear, is in jeopardy.

"What's next?" Little Five regulars ask. A Tower Records between Wax N Fax and Criminal Records? The Gap beside Junkman's Daughter?

Before Starbucks, Little Five Points property owners successfully kept chains at bay. Elliott Goldberg, a real-estate agent who's managed properties there for 35 years, says he's turned away Caribou Coffee, CVS and a Mick's restaurant. Others turned away McDonald's, the Gap and Revco.

"Let's face it, landowners rent to chains, and they may have a lease signed, but if the chain is not doing good business then they just up and go," Goldberg says. "Independents come in to make a living, and they don't move every time a lease expires."

Little Five Points business owners have another reason to be spooked. The push for intown housing has builders searching for long-forgotten lots and overgrown fields ripe for new condos or townhouses.

There's more than $50 million of residential development under construction or on the books within six blocks of the area, says Walter Brown, a Candler Park resident since 1985 and Freedom Park Conservancy board member. Property values have skyrocketed, condos and lofts are going for between $200,000 and $300,000, and new houses can cost $600,000.

The result is an influx of more affluent residents who may not appreciate the quirkiness of Little Five Points but enjoy calling such a hip area home, Bender says.

The buildup leads to traffic headaches and, even more troubling to the anti-mainstream, let's-keep-our-uniqueness crowd in Little Five Points, a new demographic of higher-paid professionals.

"There's an element here of many young people who consider themselves as being avant-garde," Bender says. "At the same time, folks from the surrounding neighborhoods think the area is too youth oriented, that there are too few restaurants that appeal to a more mature, mainstream clientele."

Already, residents of the nearby Bass Lofts and some members of the Candler Park Neighborhood Organization have vocally opposed efforts to open bars there.

"One of my biggest frustrations is that [Little Five Points] doesn't serve the people who live around here very well," says Frank Reiss, owner of A Capella Books. "For the families or older folks, there is precious little for them to buy. It should serve people looking for things besides bongs or tattoos." Still, Reiss says the answer won't be found in chain stores.

"It makes it harder to keep a place unique when you bring in franchise operations," he says.

Ironically, it was Little Five Points' uniqueness and rapid growth that attracted Starbucks' regional marketing manager Heywood McGuffee.

"The area's very eclectic. There's so much going on there," McGuffee says. When asked if chains could alter the area's culture, McGuffee answered, "I've never thought of that, but if it is something the community would like to have there, then it would be a great idea. Companies like ours need to listen to the folks who live there."

Meanwhile, Aurora owner Betsy Buckley is gearing up to fight. "We're not concerned we're going to lose business to them [Starbucks] because our customers are such avid fans and support us in large part because we're local. We're seen as an alternative to corporate coffee," Buckley says. "But we are concerned because when a company like that comes in, there's a small domino effect that raises retail rents. And what we smaller businesses have to spend in order to keep up and compete is too much. They can afford to give away more product in one grand opening than I could give away in a lifetime."

Buckley has come up with a grassroots campaign that plays off her company's underdog role. She's sending out 8,000 direct-mail pamphlets with a buy-one-get-one-free coupon topped with Aurora's battle cry: "Small, not bitter."

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