DULUTH -- Inside, the floors still gleam, but many of the storefronts have darkened.
Outside, the recently pressure-washed stone walls aren't enough to stop perceptions of neglect and crime.
Last month a proposal to allow a check-cashing business at Gwinnett Place Mall was the final straw for some leaders biting their tongues about Gwinnett's once premiere shopping establishment.
But mall officials say they are doing what they can -- serving their community and trying to create a new brand for the 26-year-old mall.
"Our long-term strategy is to serve this community," said Joe Piccolo, the area mall manager for Simon Property Group.
Piccolo is also in charge of the 1.4-million-square-foot Mall of Georgia less than 10 miles away, and he knows the 1999 opening of the Buford mall -- and the subsequent openings of Discover Mills, the Forum and the Avenue Webb Gin -- has created a glut of shopping in Gwinnett.
"We're not going to be able to compete with retail, so we're looking at nontraditional uses. ... Our team is developing a new community shopping center that hasn't been seen anywhere else."
The February day in 1984 that Gwinnett Place Mall opened was the day that put Gwinnett County on the map, many local leaders agree.
The once rural community had already begun a growth spurt, but a 1-million-square-foot mall made it a center of commerce and began two decades of extraordinary economic development.
"I've never seen more moms and babies in strollers. It was just a huge event," said Tom Wheeler, who worked at the time for developer and philanthropist Scott Hudgens, who built the mall.
Moms and strollers are still a staple at the 26-year-old mall, but instead of a mostly middle-class, Caucasian crowd, Gwinnett Place is now a veritable melting pot of cultures. The community surrounding the shopping center is a mix of white, black, Hispanic, Korean, Chinese, Indian and other cultures.
As the county's population boomed in the 1990s, Gwinnett Place Mall was the place to go, but with the opening of the Mall of Georgia, that changed.
Pleasant Hill Road's traffic snarl became a turnoff, and the business district started to show its age.
Over the next decade, things started to change.
Gwinnett Place still had a major presence until a merger between Macy's and Rich's caused the mall to lose one of its six anchor stores.
A few years later, area business owners began to bond together in an attempt to save the corridor, establishing the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District.
Efforts to improve Pleasant Hill with signal timing and sidewalks have paid dividends, and many businesses have made extra efforts to revitalize. In fact, after an extreme renovation, a KFC in front of the mall will reopen Monday.
Crime numbers have made double-digit dips, according to a recent report, but CID Executive Director Joe Allen said the perception is still there, and the area's renaissance has yet to be fulfilled.
"We want to be the mall's strongest ally," Allen said of the shopping center, which makes up 10 percent of the CID's tax base. "That mall is the cornerstone of the area. We want to see that mall succeed. It's success is critical to the county's tax base and all of us -- our economic future."
'Multitude of offerings'
With a retail market two and a half times the national average, mall manager Derrick Brown said the trick to keeping Gwinnett Place alive is balancing the traditional retail with the growing needs of the international community.
While Mall of Georgia has no problems with attracting national stores, at Gwinnett Place the big anchors and some major chains are mixed with a local market.
There is the Korean entrepreneur who opened an optical store and the Hispanic man whose establishment is filled with western wear, hats and boots and the soccer shop hanging its hopes on the love of "football" from the Hispanic community as well as other cultures. While Panera Bread Company has closed, Brown said a local baker will soon fill the space with his own treats.
Next month, Mega Mart, a major Korean chain, will open in the former Davidson's anchor spot, with grocery offerings on the ground floor and a department store above.
"It's so unique, so unusual, and fits right with our plans to what happens here," Piccolo said.
"I think we have a multitude of offerings to cover all facets of people," Brown said.
But local leaders are hoping to keep the mall from looking to the lowest common denominator. A proposal for a tattoo parlor considered for a tenant drew disgust, but it was never brought before commissioners, who would have had to approve a special-use permit.
During a public hearing before the Board of Commissioners in late August, Duluth Councilman Greg Whitlock complained that the mall did little to cater to the wealthy businessmen and women who spend their weekdays just blocks from the mall.
"We're just worried," Commissioner Shirley Lasseter said. "Gwinnett Place Mall was such a pivotal area for Gwinnett at one time. It's an absolute marvelous location, and I want to see it flourish and bring some bright new ideas to the location. I'd love to see some thinking outside the box ideas."
Piccolo and Brown think they have that figured out. They are looking to transition the mall to a community center, where government functions and medical offices are mixed with shopping. A Gwinnett Technical College campus set up in 33,000 square feet of the mall is just a start, and Brown said young students are often seen with shopping bags and connected to Wi-Fi in the food court -- which is nearly half empty, but new restaurants are coming soon.
Adjusting to needs
With the city limits of Duluth less than a mile away, Mayor Nancy Harris said she would love to work hand-in-hand with the mall to market the community and promote commerce.
But the check-cashing proposal has her flummoxed about the mall that has been a highlight of the area for decades.
"I would really like to hear the vision for that mall," she said.
Harris visits a hair dresser at Gwinnett Place frequently, but for shopping, she usually makes the longer drive to the Forum in Peachtree Corners.
"I would much rather come (to the mall), but the shops I want aren't there," she said. "Even the shops I like there are changing. It's not as reliable."
Marcy Adams, the manager of the nearby Gwinnett Place Marriott, said her hotel once ran shopping weekend packages for guests, but the heyday of the shopping mecca has passed.
"It drew people to the area. Now there is no big draw," she said, adding that area businesses want to help the mall so that there can be a major attraction for the community again. "It's not us vs. them. It's what can we do to draw people back to the Gwinnett Place area."
Mall managers hope the community center concept will create that.
"When you open up 4-million square feet (of retail space) within seven to 10 miles, there is going to be quite a change to the shopping patterns," Piccolo said.
"The key for us is we have to adjust to the needs of this community. That's what we are doing."