It was 1986 and David Thomas was enjoying living in Midtown Atlanta with his partner, Michael Hidalgo. His job as associate director of the Georgia Council for the Arts took him all over the state, and one day it took him into a meeting in Stone Mountain Village. That’s when he noticed an old trolley car station.
“I saw this building and I just got chills,” he says.
The then-mayor gave him a tour of the building and, despite its state of poor repair, Thomas and Hidalgo talked it over and made a decision. Thomas quit his job with the state, the couple moved to Stone Mountain and Thomas founded ART Station. The nonprofit now includes a professional equity theater company, a cabaret theater, five art galleries and an art school.
The couple was an exception to the rule at that time, in a land of laser shows and 10-story tall carvings of Confederate leaders of the Civil War. But they were also two of the LGBT pioneers who helped start a trend that’s led to Stone Mountain Village becoming an unlikely LGBT mecca in Georgia, with members of the community owning or running several businesses and serving on various city boards.
The trend has picked up in the last five to 10 years in particular, with members of the LGBT community flocking to Stone Mountain Village for its more affordable housing, small town feel, access to Stone Mountain Park and, not least, seeing some friendly faces. And now the city’s Downtown Development Authority has even made recruitment of LGBT residents and businesses a peg in the city’s five-year plan.
Mayor’s late brother-in-law opened her eyes
Accepting and embracing the LGBT community and making it part of the city’s long-term planning is personal for Stone Mountain Mayor Pat Wheeler, who has lived in the city with her husband for 50 years. Her late brother-in-law was gay.
“We saw how he was treated,” she says. “People shouldn’t be treated that way. It’s different having a personal relationship with someone in your family and seeing how they’re shunned by society.”
Last year, Wheeler signed on for the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry campaign in support of marriage equality, joining 400 other mayors across the country, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
You can find Mayor Wheeler grabbing a cup of coffee at Cafe JAYA most mornings. Rory Webb owns the coffeehouse with his partner of 25 years, Jeff Carey.
The couple always dreamed of moving to a small-town type of community that was also welcoming to them, and they didn’t think they would find it in Georgia until meeting Thomas and Hidalgo on a cruise.
“They really sold us on taking a look at Stone Mountain and ensuring us it was really diverse and open and affirming,” Webb says.
After checking it out for themselves, they bought Cafe JAYA last February and moved from Lithonia in July.
“We immediately fell in love with the community and the people have embraced us,” he says.
Webb was elected by the city council to serve on the Downtown Development Authority, and is also a board member of the Stone Mountain Village Business Association (SMVBA). Of the six members on the board of the SMVBA, four are LGBT.
‘Being an out gay business owner is actually really a good thing for the city’
Susan Leisure and her partner Brooke Martin loved the more affordable housing but had concerns about living openly as a couple when they first moved to Stone Mountain in 2004.
“We didn’t lie to anybody, but we were hesitant about letting people know we were a couple,” Leisure says. “That lasted about three months, then we started being more open. It became clear very quickly that that’s not an issue.”
Leisure is the director and Martin is the director of operations of AARF Pet Central, a pet supply store, adoption center and training center in Stone Mountain Village. Leisure, who is president of the SMVBA, doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that there are so many LGBT-owned and/or operated businesses concentrated in Stone Mountain Village and that many LGBT community members serve in leadership positions.
“We all live in the village,” she says. “Do all the gay business owners live in Midtown? Or in Decatur? We all live here so it’s really critical to us how the city develops and not just that people come spend money in our stores. The city has done a great job making it clear to us that being an out gay business owner is actually really a good thing for the city.”
‘Gay people started moving in and we’re bringing new life to it’
Chiropractor David Feschuk was living with his partner in a house in Buckhead in 2003 when they were looking to make a move, but the prices in Atlanta were too high.
“You could spend $250,000 and get a two-bedroom, one-bath in Atlanta and in Stone Mountain, the houses were a fraction of that,” he says.
He was familiar with the area from biking, hiking and running in Stone Mountain Park, but had what he calls “major concerns” about moving there.
“I did not want to live outside the Perimeter,” he says.
But he and his partner made the move and have never looked back. He moved his chiropractic office, The Back Shack, from Buckhead into Stone Mountain Village in 2008. He expanded into a bigger location in 2013 and now offers additional services in what is now called The Healing Center.
“It’s really surprising and I don’t know if it’s Stone Mountain Village itself or if it’s just the way it is now with people being more open,” he says. “There’s still some people here who are not open to gay people living in the village, but just like any other area Stone Mountain Village was a dead area, then gay people started moving in and we’re bringing new life to it.”
Feschuk’s best friend J.R. Scott lived on Piedmont Park and liked it, but began to tire of the traffic and high property values. The openly gay realtor at Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Metro Brokers knew the area from visiting Feschuk, and he loves rock-climbing, so, well, you get the drift. One more LGBT businessperson joined the rest of the population in Stone Mountain.
“A lot of people move to Decatur and the houses there have gotten more expensive. Then the next step out is Stone Mountain,” says Scott, who is also an SMVBA board member.
ART Station’s Thomas points to a pact he made with his partner Hidalgo when they got together 32 years ago that might help explain what Stone Mountain Village has turned into today.
“When we first got together, we knew we were going to be together a long time. So we wrote our personal mission statements,” says Thomas, who also sits on the board of the SMVBA and the Downtown Development Authority. “One of the things was that we wanted to be an example of a gay couple in a mainstream community and show we’re not weirdos.”
“Michael and I have planted a lot of seeds over the years and they’re finally beginning to sprout.”
LGBT Owned and/or Operated Businesses in Stone Mountain Village
ART Station Contemporary Arts Center and Theatre Company Owners/Managers: David Thomas and Michael Hidalgo Year Opened: 1986 Description of Services: Professional theater productions, galleries, cabaret and arts instruction. Specialty/customer favorite/claim to fame: received awards from National Endowment for the Arts, Georgia Council for the Arts, Georgia Trend Magazine, an ABBY Award from the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and many more. www.artstation.org
New Orleans Snoball Cafe Owners: Vicki Sanders & Jared Scanlon Year opened: 2010 Description of services: New Orleans style “snowballs” (snow cones) and popcorn Specialty/customer favorite/claim to fame: Big Easy Paradise—fresh lemonade, strawberry and mango flavors with homemade coconut ice cream, condensed milk and strawberry purée. www.NewOrleansSnoballCafe.com
AARF Pet Central / Atlanta Animal Rescue Friends Co-directors: Susan Leisure and Brooke Martin. Year opened: The rescue group has been in business since 2002 and AARF Pet Central opened in 2011. Description of services: Supply retail pet store and pet adoption center. Specialty/customer favorite/claim to fame: nutritional advice and top quality foods for any budget. One of the most extensive selections of raw foods in the metro Atlanta area. www.aarfpetcentral.com
The Healing Center Owner: David Feschuk Year Opened: 2013 Description of Services: activator chiropractic, energy healing, massage, reflexology, and counseling. Specialty/customer favorite/claim to fame: reducing neck and back pain, increasing energy and strength through holistic approach. www.thebackshack.com
Pop Up Parties, LLC Owner: Michele King Year opened: 2014 Description of services: party and event design, planning, consultations, window display services, “party in a box” and party supplies Specialty/customer favorite/claim to fame: Design of themed parties and handmade party décor www.popuppartyatlanta.com
Cafe JAYA Owners: Jeff Carey and Rory Webb Year opened: 2014 Description of services: Nonprofit community coffeehouse and tearoom Specialty/customer favorite/claim to fame: salted caramel latte and music concerts www.facebook.com/Cafejaya