Never let it be said that Camille Y. Lilly, president of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, is not a woman of creativity. Lilly recently invited the executive director of the Greater Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce to co-host Austin’s regular Business After Hours (BAH) meeting. As she pointed out, we are stronger and more successful when we all work together, share ideas and are committed to the betterment of the entire West Side.

The BAH meeting was held at one of the West Side’s newer establishments, Westside Coffee Express, located at 314 N. Pulaski. Westside Coffee Express is the brainchild of owners Minnie & Joe Smith, who are longtime West Side entrepreneurs and community leaders. The establishment is run by Brenda Smith, one of their six children.

Changing from the regular evening routine, this meeting was held on Thursday morning (8:30-11 a.m.) Oct. 19. Westside Coffee Express served a generous breakfast of smothered potatoes, rice, sausage patties, link sausages, waffles, bacon, eggs, grits and various blended coffees.

After a short introduction, Lilly invited Garfield’s Ernestine King to speak. King said she was happy to have the opportunity to network with Austin and talked about some of the business ventures that are planned for greater Garfield. “We are working with a consultant to put together a revitalization plan for Madison Street,” King said. “You’re going to see soon new stores coming into the area, more business variety. It’s going to become a better destination for businesses, and it’s going to increase business for the businesses that are here. Hopefully it will be an economic engine for the community. So we’re working on that plan in West Garfield, and we’re also working on a plan in East Garfield. It’s a journey. It is not the easiest thing in the world to do, but it is necessary and we’re trying to get it done by working with the alderman [Ed Smith], businesses here, and the community in trying to put together that overall revitalization plan for Madison Street.

“Very soon is there is going to be streetscaping from Pulaski Road to Kostner approximately. You’re going to see new sidewalks, new gutters, new light fixtures and even the traffic lights. The money is available to have that work done. You guys all are going to be proud when all of this work is done, and you can see the benefits to the entire community. At the corner of Kostner, there is a new mall coming. At the corner of Kilbourn and Madison, there is a new plaza that is coming. We’re hoping we will have a better balance of mixed-use properties in terms of housing and also a better balance of businesses-locally owned and chain stores. We think that is necessary to create the kind of economics that is needed to help the community survive, and provide job opportunities for people. We hope the stores that will come will offer opportunities for people to come in as a clerk and to move into management.

“We just finished a business and arts venture with the loft artists at Homan and Madison Street. These artists are working with the community [on] projects to create new opportunities. This was a partnership between the chamber and Mr. Wallace Davis [Wallace Catfish Corner]. All of this was about promoting the corridor. We want people to know that Madison is a place to come-a good place to do business. Hang in there with us. It is going to take time, but we are trying to change the face of Madison Street so that the change can support economic development in the community. We have banks in the area now, National City run by Mr. Patrick McGee. We want to develop stronger partnerships with the bank and the entire community. The aldermen involved with these efforts are Ed Smith [28th Ward] and Isaac Carothers [29th Ward].”

Lilly stated “What we’re doing with the Garfield Chamber of Commerce [is] so much more powerful when the wards are connecting in their development. So it is important that the Garfield Chamber of Commerce work together with Austin Chamber of Commerce as we collectively look at economic growth. If there is no commerce in a community, there is no community. Most people don’t get that. Most of our residents will leave the community and go to other places for their purchases, not realizing that they are taking that economic bottom-line out of their community and not putting anything back in and often that drains you. But I’m excited to be in collaboration with the Garfield Chamber of Commerce and working with our elected officials, Alderman Carothers, Alderman Mitts and Alderman Smith for our economic vision.”

Lilly also talked about the community economic tour that took place in September and looked at opportunities in three wards. The tour guides were the aldermen of those wards. Information was compiled and now developers and commercial retailers have been invited on the follow-up tour planned for Nov. 9. Lilly states they will be taking over 40 developers and real estate people on a tour of the 28th Ward, 29th Ward and the 37th Ward. The mission is to enhance economic development and economic growth.

Bethel New Life, Inc. President and CEO Steven McCullough spoke briefly to the group explaining how the project for West Side Coffee Express came about. “What we’re trying to do is restore retail to this community. What makes me feel really good is the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Garfield Chamber of Commerce is working together because a strong West Garfield means a strong Austin. It is all linked and we have to think of this as a linked opportunity because for so long we have been divided. Once you cross Cicero, I want it to be consistent whether you’re going east or west.”

To contact the Austin Chamber of Commerce (Camille Lilly), call 773/854-5063. To contact the Garfield Chamber of Commerce (Ernestine King), call 773/722-6650.