NORCROSS - Maritza Pichon was disappointed that the ceremonial start of a new community center for Latinos began with a sledgehammer.
"I was hoping it would be a paintbrush instead of a sledgehammer," she said during the celebration Monday. "We're going to restore this beautiful building."
Built in the early 1900s, the Lawrenceville Street bungalow will soon become a home away from home for one of Gwinnett's fastest growing groups of minorities.
Pichon, the executive director of the Latin American Association, said she hopes to welcome clients at the new center by January, but the house needs a lot of work.
From the outside, people see broken windows and a rotted porch, a house that has sat empty for about four years. Inside, the rustic building has the charm of hardwood floors, an old fireplace and a built-in wall cabinet.
In June, the city of Norcross purchased the house along with a nearby old church for about $2 million. Mayor Pro Tem Michael Lovelady said the church will become the city's first community center, and the house will become the Latino center. A sidewalk will connect the two.
"This is about building bridges with the community," Pichon said.
The restoration is expected to take about $15,000, with help from Georgia Power, the United Way and Home Depot, which is donating the supplies.
Partnering with nearby schools for help with after-school programs, the Latin American Association will also host English and citizenship classes at the site.
It is the sixth community center for the group in metro Atlanta and the second in Gwinnett. Pichon said the Harmony Station location had waiting lists for English classes, so the expansion would help serve the expanding service.
According to Rep. Pedro Marin, whose district includes the city, about 32 percent of the area's population is Hispanic.
"The population of Latino students is growing, and we all want to make sure they are educated," Pichon said.