By Nicole Davis
During the past 15 years, the Greater Southside Business Alliance has not simply acted as a business networking group. Its members have been leaders in redevelopment of the Southside – particularly Madison Avenue, have united businesses and the community for education, awareness of local current happenings and promoted the diverse culture of Perry Township.
As of Jan. 1, the GSBA has paused its operations.
“We’re in a hiatus right now,” said Kevin Wheeler, director of WalkerHughes Group LLC and formerly owner of Cardinal Insurance. “We will have another discussion in June or July to see where things are at. There is a need for it. GSBA has been, for lack of a better term, the quasi chamber in the greater Southside area. Businesses need to communicate with one another as well as local citizens to keep on top of current events. Networking to keep the community strong and vibrant is really important.”
From the 1960s through the 80s, a group of business owners called the Madison Avenue Businessmen’s Association helped to build the Garfield Park area. The group eventually outgrew what it was intended to do and dissolved.
Fast forward to 2015. Dr. Robin Thoman, co-owner of Paradox Dental, called business owners in the Southport area, wanting to gather them together. Wheeler mentioned the Madison Avenue group and Thoman agreed, that’s exactly what he wanted to do. The Southport Business Alliance was formerly incorporated in 2008.
A small group of enthusiastic business owners formed the first board with Thoman as president. Members quickly realized that the group was needed beyond the Southport boundary, and GSBA extended its reach. The name eventually changed to the Greater Southside Business Alliance.
Thoman eventually stepped away and was followed by Joan Miller.
“She was not only the face, but the whole body of GSBA,” Wheeler said. “She had a passion for this. She had a passion for getting involved. With the support of the board as her arm, she got a lot done.”
During this time, GSBA hosted the annual Taste of Perry, a fundraising event which helped promote local restaurants and brought in government officials to educate the community on current events. In partnership with the Baxter YMCA, they created the Perry Cultural Festival, celebrating the diversity of Perry Township, an event which was later taken on by the Y. In 2015, they opened the Southside Business Initiative, a co-working space which has since closed. They held community forums to educate residents, such as dissolving rumors about who the Chin immigrants were when the Chin community was becoming prominent in the area. They held Positively Perry forums, asking political leaders to attend and give Perry Township the attention it needed so funds necessary for improvements went to the township and not elsewhere in the state. Members advocated for businesses and redevelopment in numerous other ways.
When Miller retired, the leadership changed hands a few times, landing on Wheeler approximately three years ago. He continued serving in this leadership role even as his business operations changed from Southport to Greenwood.
“Like everything else, people are struggling to get people involved,” he said. “We were no different. … We did a survey of the membership and it said ‘we want GSBA to exist, but we don’t have time to go to meetings.’”
Most recently, GSBA’s most successful fundraiser was its Perry Go Round. Participants were given a map with participating businesses and encouraged to visit as many as they could, collecting stickers from each business. The person with the most stickers collected won $250. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Traveling and in-person visits for many of these businesses was no longer advisable.
“It got to a point where I don’t want to charge people dues if we’re not doing anything,” Wheeler said. “We can’t really do anything. My gut is telling me that what will end up happening is no different than Madison Avenue. There will come a time when business owners, passionate about getting involved, will get together and rally and hopefully will knock on my door.”