As it sat in disrepair for years and with the City of Winder unable to find anyone who could make use of it, the iconic Peskin building on East Athens Street seemed destined to be torn down and erased from the downtown landscape.

But in April 2016 a construction company owner, who had recently moved to town from Gwinnett County, stepped into the building he had grown intrigued by and immediately saw a future for it.

Nearly three years after the city council agreed to give it to him, and north of $3 million in investment later, Daniel Diaz has transformed the more than 80-year-old former department store into what is once again becoming a key focal point downtown.

“When I first saw it, I asked (real estate agent Mike Rice) about it and said, ‘I wish somebody would get me a building like that one day,” Diaz said last month, sitting in his company conference room on the third floor. “And I remember the first day going up to the rooftop and looking around and thinking this building really had a lot of potential.”

Certificates of occupancy were issued for the building in December. A steakhouse — Latin Flavors — opened on the first floor and has become an immediate hit, along with an accompanying basement bar and rooftop lounge. A special-event space, an idea spearheaded by Diaz’s wife, is now on the second floor, where the local Masonic Lodge and Eastern Star chapter used to meet. And the offices for Diaz’s several companies are on the third floor.

A native of Panama, Diaz came to the U.S. when he was 19 years old and lived with his mother in Mississippi, where he went to college. In 1994, when he was 23, he moved to Atlanta with $700 in his pocket, almost all of which he says went toward a room at the cheapest hotel he could find, a car and gas.

More than 25 years later, Diaz, who started from the bottom up, runs his own construction companies and has purchased and renovated several buildings in downtown Winder since moving to town in 2015 for what he describes as a more business-friendly environment.

From the time he arrived, Diaz says, it was the Peskin building, which had sat vacant for years and had a damaged roof and flooded basement, that really caught his eye and sparked his imagination.

With the help of Rice, Diaz engaged in talks with the city, which had taken ownership of the building in June 2015, about purchasing and reviving it. In December 2016, the city council voted to give the building to Diaz for $1 with conditions that he repurpose it into a combination of restaurant and commercial/office space, and that he start the work within 90 days.

A FOND HISTORY

Diaz got to work immediately.

“The day after we closed on the building with the city, I started working on it,” said Diaz, who had to oversee a more costly-than-expected, total structural renovation from the inside.

It was when he started work on the building, Diaz said, that he began to learn more of the history of the building and its namesake from the locals.

Businessman Henry Peskin had arrived in Winder in 1929 and opened his department store in the building in 1936, according to the 1983 book “Beadland to Barrow,” compiled by the Barrow County Historical Society. The book described the store as northeast Georgia’s first “Bargain Basement,” where people could buy “quality” merchandise at affordable prices.

In 1955, Peskin’s daughter and son-in-law Florence Peskin Schwartz and Sanford Schwartz took over management of the store, and a third generation of the family took over in 1970 with Ronnie Schwartz. The store closed in January 1990 and the building had been vacant since then prior to the renovation. 

“As I started taking the inside of the building down, so many people were stopping me right out in front and telling me they were glad I was saving the building," Diaz said. "A lot of people had good and fond memories of Henry Peskin and going there. I think people saw it deteriorating so badly and they never could have imagined someone could come and do this.

“When people were stopping by and telling me everything they remembered, I knew that I was saving something that was important to the people of Winder.”

Long-time city councilman Sonny Morris said Diaz turned out to be the right man to renovate the building.

“I think it’s one of the better things we’ve done since I’ve been on there,” Morris said. “It’s turned out very well for us, and I think he’s made that building something the whole city can be proud of.”

A SPIRIT OF GENEROSITY

Sitting in the same conference room with Diaz, Rice recalled his days working at Peskin’s as a teenager and remembered Peskin as a kind, generous man.

Peskin was known for giving cartons of cigarettes and care packages to local soldiers who went off to war and helped many others through their struggles over the years.

“The Peskins and Schwartzes were good to our community,” Rice said.

Morris agreed, adding that there was even more generosity behind the scenes.

“(The store) was probably one of the last places you could go and get a charge account set up and pay whatever you could pay, whenever you could pay it,” he said. “That family did a lot that some people just don’t have an idea, back in the day when it was really tough.”

So perhaps it’s only appropriate that both men see the same spirit of generosity — and humility — in Diaz.

Diaz has helped people in his buildings get their businesses off the ground, including the steakhouse, and will have the same concept in two other spaces he is renovating for restaurants on Jackson Street — a Mexican-style grille and a health-food café.

“He’ll do everything and build something the way people want it,” Rice said. “He makes it where they can just start and go to work right away.”

For Diaz, the financial assistance and investment is a way of both putting his deep religious faith into action and seeing Winder become more vibrant.

“I came here (to the U.S.) with nothing and it wasn’t easy. But with the opportunities and doors that have opened for me, if God gives you so much in life, you have to give back,” said Diaz, who also delivers food and diapers every year to people in need in Panama. He remembers the helplessness he felt when he didn’t have the money to save his grandmother’s house there after she died and says that motivates him to give back to the community.

“I fell in love with Winder and how the people treated and welcomed me here, and I wanted to put 110 percent into this building and give the town something special,” Diaz said. “You don’t have to tear down old buildings to make parking. I get the most satisfaction out of seeing those business owners I help smile and their dreams come true. I want to help them grow so there is a better Winder for all of us — because everyone benefits that way.

“I want the whole town to have a life.”

BRINGING DOWNTOWN BACK TO LIFE

And the efforts of Diaz and others like Wes VanKirk have helped bring a new life to downtown, Rice said.

“You can see people walking around down here at night again,” Rice said. “Without them and the investment they’ve made down here, I don’t know where we would be.”

“I can’t say enough about (Diaz),” Morris said. “He’s a very patient, Christian person. He took a lot of pride in the building and was out there working, hands-on, every day. He put his life and soul into it, and at the end of the day I’m just amazed at what he’s done.”

Morris and Diaz agreed the project wasn’t always easy and had several various construction- and inspection-related hiccups along the way. But ultimately, Diaz said, the venture was worth it and just part of an overall vision.

“Winder is growing. It is changing and it’s changing for the good,” he said. “There’s a lot of good people here who want to make Winder better. We are making a difference.

“And I’m happy to be a part of that difference.”

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