"Come in the house!"
Robert Cornely greets each customer the same way with his gentle, inviting drawl, letting them peruse an assortment of fresh produce and Mason jars of relish, pickles, jams and preserves.
As they reach the counter, he tempts them with samples of baked goods made by his wife and business partner, Cindy Cornely.
When Robert Cornely helps a customer to her car, carrying a cardboard tray of fruits for her, she's noticeably impressed.
"Service with a smile," she says. "You don't get that very often."
Since the mid-1980s, the Cornelys have operated Robert's Fruit Stand at the northeast corner of Lower Roswell Road and Woodlawn Drive, and have made it part of their business to offer an extra touch and a relaxed slice of life from a time gone by.
Amid the bustling, fast pace of life in East Cobb, Robert's offers what Cindy Cornely calls "community charm," an antidote to the many fast-food shops and chain stores nearby.
Back inside, a few customers refer to Robert Cornely by name as they stop to say hello, purchase a few items and strike up friendly conversation.
Some of the talk lately has been about Robert's Fruit Stand, and it's been distressing for them to hear.
In recent weeks Cobb Department of Transportation officials have unveiled plans for traffic improvements in the Lower Roswell-Johnson Ferry corridor. They include constructing a right turn lane from westbound Lower Roswell to northbound Woodlawn.
County officials say the lane addition, part an $8 million project coming from Cobb 2011 SPLOST funds, is needed to help reduce the number of traffic accidents at a heavily-traveled intersection.
But in order to do this, Robert's outdoor market -- located literally on the street corner and a hard-to-miss sight for passersby -- will have to come down.
"I'm all for safety," a customer told Robert Cornely as she munched on a slice of honey crisp apple he sliced for her with his pocket knife. "But I don't want you guys going."
The price of progress?
At an open house last week at the East Cobb Library, renderings of the plans highlighted the proposed changes at the intersection in a way that made them hard to ignore.
"You can't stand in the way of progress," Robert Cornely says. "But it really sinks in hard when you see the fruit stand with a big red circle on it."
The outdoor market opens each April overflowing with plants and flowers, in addition to the produce Robert Cornely buys daily from the Atlanta Farmers Market in Forest Park. Shortly before it closes in November, the stand is adorned with bright orange pumpkins and the colors of autumn.
That's what the Cornelys and many of their customers don't want to see disappear, for aesthetic and business reasons.
"It's a lovely, peaceful, little corner in our hectic and impersonal world," Robert's customer Marie Woodruff wrote on an online petition started last week by Cindy Cornely to keep the stand where it is.
"You sell a lot more produce when people can see it," Robert Cornely said.
Cindy Cornely, who owns the property where the outdoor market stands and the building with the indoor market right behind it, said more than 200 people have contributed to the petition, and some have also responded to her e-mail request to get in touch with East Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott.
"They think it's not a big deal, but you're playing with somebody's livelihood," she says, referring to county officials. "This is how we make a living. It's been in the community so long it's an asset."
She said she first learned the details of the plans in December, when she met with a Cobb DOT engineer, but was frustrated that feedback amounted to "filling out a comment sheet. It seems like it's already a done deal."
Ott said he hadn't heard from the Cornelys when he was contacted by East Cobb Patch, but called her and arranged for her to meet this week with Cobb Community Development Agency officials about possible options for saving the stand.
He said the county has tried to be sensitive to the project's impact on business owners.
"I don't want anyone to feel like they're powerless," he said. "I told Cindy that we're not the big bad wolf here, but we're literally between a rock and a hard spot. There's no other spot to improve that intersection than to use that corner. It is a safety issue."
Options and future decisions
Ott added that the current location of the stand does violate some county code provisions, including having "zero" setback from the street. Relocation to another part of the Cornelys' property would require a variance request subject to approval by the county commission.
Robert Cornely said the only realistic spot to move the stand would be next to, and slightly behind, an emissions testing business on one end of the building, and in front of a curb cut into the adjacent Stonewood Village Shopping Center.
Cindy Cornely has been making plans to lease the current winter indoor market space during the summer months with a year-round tenant in mind.
Right-of-way acquisitions for the Lower Roswell traffic project will begin this summer, so her plans won't be affected this year, although construction is projected to begin in mid-2014.
But the Cornelys have their doubts that moving the stand away from the street would ensure the unique customer experience they've tried to provide.
"It's part of the charm of the community, of not being the cookie-cutter thing that everybody else is," she said. "This would take away all the beauty of that corner."