Ned Wagner of Belmont Village, Chris Everett, Bill Todd of Todd & Holland, Dan and Jim Watts of O'Sullivan's. | Courtesy Martha Wade

Chris Everett was thinking outside the box when she came up with the idea of five chambers of commerce holding a Business After Hours (BAH) event as a kind of mini-street fair right outside the door of her business on Elgin Ave.

Businesses in the half block of Elgin south of Madison St. — O’Sullivan’s, Village Pilates, and the Mattress Firm, along with the Forest Agency around the corner — immediately jumped on board to sponsor the event, which was held on Tuesday, Sept. 15 from 5 till 8 p.m. Seven restaurants from Forest Park and vendors from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, Berwyn and Oak Park provided free food for the over 150 members of the five chambers of commerce — Forest Park, Oak Park River Forest, Berwyn, Austin and Grand Corridor (Elmwood Park, Melrose Park) — who gathered to network.

Everett called the event a “collaboration of promotions.” Many of the businesses represented by the five chambers are technically in competition with each other, yet many of those in attendance voiced the conviction that in today’s market, collaboration is essential.

Joel Foster, a financial advisor with Edward Jones and a Forest Park Chamber board member, said, “An event like this makes people aware of the whole community and not just one village or neighborhood. We all have something a little different to offer. Business owners see services not offered in their particular community, which you don’t have to go way downtown for.”

Amara Enyia, executive director of the Austin Chamber, said, “We’re moving into an era where it’s to our benefit to work collaboratively because a lot of the challenges our businesses face are very similar. We don’t want there to be a wall between Chicago and our western neighbors. We want it to feel like a continuous community that benefits businesses whether you are on one side of Austin Boulevard or the other.”

“That’s the kind of culture we’re trying to foster,” she said, “but part of that means we need to get to know our neighbors.”

Although all five chamber directors encourage people to shop local, Cathy Yen, the OPRF Chamber’s executive director, spoke for all her colleagues when she said businesses in this area have to think regionally. 

“What’s the benefit of this?” she said. “You will meet not only the usual people you’re used to networking with but you’ll also meet other people. At the end of the day, business doesn’t stop at Harlem. It goes right across, and the connections that are made can really build commerce across the region.”

Judy Saraceno-Swenson, a staff person with the Berwyn Chamber, said her director had gotten together with Yen and Forest Park’s director, Laurie Kokenes, recently to discuss how to build those connections.

Martha Wade, director of development at Everett Wealth Solutions, explained why a small business like Pop Fusion, a gourmet popcorn shop at 4936 W. Chicago Ave. in Austin, would be motivated to hand out samples of birthday cake popcorn in Forest Park. 

“She’s branching out,” said Wade. “She’s simply letting people know she’s here. Garrett’s in the Loop is the well-known brand, but Pop Fusion is getting the word out that her brand is top quality too and with different flavors than Garrett’s.”

In today’s economy, Everett said, relationship building is essential. She and Enyia are putting together a program to help fund the summer youth program in Austin because “taking youth from any community off the street and putting them into a paying job is a good idea, especially now that some of the funding from the state is drying up.

“The more you get to know, like and trust someone,” she declared, “the more you create a culture of honor where you can really get to know someone and figure out what their need is.”

Not everything at this BAH was focused on the bottom line. Rev. James Huenink, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Berwyn, dressed in his clergy shirt, mingled with the crowd of business people for two hours.

“I think one of the most important things any community can have,” he said, “is getting people together and building connections, building trust, between neighbors. It’s the business owners who focus on doing the right work and caring for people through their businesses who have successful businesses.”

For instance, Everett and social worker Karen Grimes launched a project called College Readiness for Success to help students who have learning or social or attention or emotional “differences” which have not been diagnosed, such ADD or Asperger’s.

“We found a new market,” Everett said, “that was underserved.”

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