Preservation society and merchants join hands to better the community

Preservation society and merchants join hands to better the community
Members of the boards of both San Marco’s Preservation Society and Merchants Association mingled at the home of SMMA President Robert Harris and his wife, Paola, for a barbecue Aug. 2.

Perhaps Helen Keller said it best, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”

This has never been more evident than during the past year and a half, since Bryan Mickler and Robert Harris took over as the heads of two of the most visible civic organizations on the Southside.

Mickler, president of the San Marco Preservation Society (SMPS), and Harris, leader of the San Marco Merchants Association (SMMA), have made it a point to have their boards communicate with each other more, spend time getting to know each other socially, and collaborate for the betterment of the community.

“Our goal is to make sure that both groups are thriving, and thriving together,” said Harris. “We found we were all trying to do the same thing. We were trying to get everybody to focus on San Marco and the activity that is going on and to emphasize the preservation side of it as much as the merchants’ side of it. Bryan has been so incredibly receptive. Before, both boards were pretty much exclusive in their thought process until the past couple of years when we all realized we were trying to do the same thing and that we have more in common than we have in divergent interests.”

Mickler agreed. “Without a vibrant commercial core, you don’t have a vibrant neighborhood,” he said. “The real reason we want to cooperate is that our missions are parallel. SMMA can’t have a successful commercial corridor without a neighborhood people want to live in. We need each other to survive.”

Although for many years a common board member has served as a liaison between the two groups and members of the SMPS and SMMA have mingled together at various functions, in general, the two groups have remained in their own lanes when it comes to fulfilling their separate missions, said George Foote, SMMA executive director. Since Harris and Mickler have taken over, the boards have worked hard to communicate and often work hand in hand at strategizing on how they can better serve the community, said Joe Carlucci, SMMA vice president.

“I think it is trickling down from the new leadership,” Carlucci said. “It’s no secret that back in the day the two organizations didn’t collaborate as well as they do today, and to that point I think we would all just call it the past. We are not concerned as to why that was. We are more concerned about San Marco now and improving both our networks. Bryan Mickler has been really great, and Robert Harris is really, really good. They both have recognized it, and their personalities said, ‘Hey, this isn’t right. We’re next-door neighbors. Let’s talk to each other.’”

Although he gets along famously with Harris, it is Foote that Mickler credits with first strengthening the tie between the two groups. “It was George who approached me. He thought it was important to have better coordination between the two boards,” said Mickler. “George and I live across the street from each other so it’s easy for us to communicate.”

Under Mickler-Harris leadership, the boards got together last fall when they met at UCOM Urban Services to fill Thanksgiving bags for less fortunate residents in the community.

In addition, both groups work hard on community beautification efforts and share the maintenance of Balis Park. They will also soon join with the city in bringing a landscaping upgrade to both the park and San Marco’s roundabouts, said Mickler.

In addition to having both boards gather for a friendly dinner Aug. 2 at Harris’s Epping Forest home, the two organizations are coordinating a 21st birthday party on Saturday, October 13 to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the installation of the Lions statue in San Marco Square.

“The groups have always interacted with each other, but Robert and Bryan are taking it to a new level,” said Foote, who has also served as president of both organizations.

Former SMMA President Anita Vining agreed. “Robert has really done a great job of reaching out, and when Bryan took over preservation, he had a different vision. What is so good about preservation and the merchants collaborating is that we (SMMA) don’t have their data base. We market and work hard to bring people into San Marco, but the preservation society has that personal one-to-one contact. They’ve been so helpful to us by pushing our events and anything we’ve got going on. They bring it up and push it out to the public,” she said. “We benefit them by keeping the Square clean, interacting with the merchants and getting feedback for things they want and need and keeping them engaged.”

Carlucci shared one small example of how the two groups work well together. While driving through San Marco Square in July, he spotted a pile of furniture on the sidewalk in front of the Square 1 Building and realized the tenant who operated Melos Restaurant had been evicted from the premises.

“All their stuff was thrown out on the curb. I saw it but couldn’t do anything about it because I was on my way to a meeting, so I called Bryan Mickler. He immediately ran over there, called the city, and got it squared away,” said Carlucci. “Having the two groups be close makes it like we have each other’s back. That is a huge step that we didn’t have before.”

Mickler’s and Harris’ more inclusive attitude hasn’t stopped with collaboration between their two organizations. Under Mickler’s tutelage, the San Marco Preservation Society is active in a coalition of neighborhood associations that includes Springfield Preservation and Revitalization (SPAR) and Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP). He has also offered to extend a hand to newly reformed St. Nicholas Area Preservation (SNAP) by offering them assistance and the opportunity to meet in Preservation Hall. Meanwhile, Harris has welcomed representatives from the 5 Points Merchants Association, SNAP, and the newly formed San Marco East Business Association to SMMA’s meetings hoping to keep lines of communication open and to assist the groups beyond San Marco’s boundaries.

Rob Smith, a former member of SMMA and a longtime member of SMPS, said collaboration is important, especially with so much new development now facing the area. “By working together, we can make our lives easier and make this area – particularly the Square – a better place. It is the center of the neighborhood,” said Smith.

San Marco is “ground zero” with at least four major residential developments being built in its surrounding environs, and the two organizations need to work together to increase residents’ awareness of impending changes in their community, said Harris.

Desiree Bailey, who serves as a liaison between the two groups, said only good can come from the groups working more closely together. “I think it’s fantastic. It strengthens our community. We have more understanding of what each organization is doing even though I think the public views it as a lot of overlap. It’s similar to when people say we have so many boutiques in San Marco. We do, but when you go into the different stores you discover they are very different in what they are offering. When you get to know what each of our organizations is doing, you realize how very different they are.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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