ILLINOIS EXCHANGE: After 88 years, business club to end so charities can get checks

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PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — After almost 90 years, the South Side Business Club will end in bittersweet irony.

The club, formed to bolster commercial and community interests in what once was the core of the city, will disband to make one final contribution to Peoria. In shutting down, the club will distribute $16,000 to agencies and charities at work in South Peoria. Further, the club will provide seed money to create a park dedicated to victims of violence.

Pierre Serafin, the club’s secretary-treasurer, “It’s the end of an era.”

Serafin, 67, also is the end of an era, the last active club officer. The others have dwindled away, just like the scores upon scores of businesses that once belonged to the once-influential organization.

The South Side Business Men’s Club got its start 88 years ago, as announced in a Jan. 21, 1930, Peoria Journal Star headline, “South Side Businessmen to Organize Luncheon Club.” Thirty-six proprietors signed up to meet regularly at Hotel Endres for a nickel lunch. Later, members would gather at the Italian-American Hall, then near St. Ann Catholic Church.

The organization incorporated in the 1950s and as late as 1975 counted about 250 member business. The group helped Peoria in multiple ways for decades. For instance, a Dec. 18, 1967, Journal Star photo depicts the club hosting a family Christmas party, charging a can of food for admission. In turn, the group donated the cans to the South Side Mission for Christmastime food baskets.

Meantime, as late as the 1980s, the group hosted speakers and politicians who would share ideas. The events were scheduled in part to boost civic discourse, but to also keep South Peoria on the minds of movers and shakers.

“Hopefully, we would get some attention,” says Serafin, whose family since 1977 has owned (in part, then outright) UFS Downtown Outlet Center.

Meantime, the group held great sway in city politics, pushing for policies and decisions that would grow commerce in the thriving south end. Members generated plenty of newspaper ink: in 1963, after the Journal Star raved repeatedly above Downtown development, the club pressured the paper to look at improvements amid South Peoria’s commercial districts. The paper took a look around, then raved with a headline, “Parking developed; businesses modernized.”

Still, almost all of the businesses listed in the story — Szold’s Department Sore, Sweetnam Hardware Co., Lowensteins Inc. furniture shop — exist today only in nostalgia. In the 1970s, for multiple social reasons, many Peorians began to migrate out of the south end. Serafin has no axe to grind, but he wishes the city had invested more in that part of town.

“As people went up the bluff, the city forgot about the core of the city,” Serafin says.

In the early 1990s, with the club sputtering, Serafin and a handful of others tried to jumpstart the effort, rechristened the South Side Business Club as not to offend or exclude women. For a while, the club flexed some of its old muscle. In 1995, members launched a petition drive against a proposal that would bring a work-release center to the neighborhood; sensitive to the area’s reputation for crime and criminals, the club prodded the City Council to vote the plan down.

Proposals arose re-ignite old commercial areas. The South Side Development Corp. (remember that?) bragged of hush-hush negotiations for new sidewalks, landscaping and ornamental lights. At the onset of the new century, the city-commissioned Heart of Peoria Plan called for a revamp of Southwest Adams Street from Downtown to Bartonville. Some of those ideas materialized, but only in the Warehouse District — certainly not to the sections of South Peoria that once served as the vibrant hub of Peoria.

Meantime, more businesses either folded or moved. Right now, aside from social-service agencies, the only commercial entity in the South Side Business Club is UFS.

“We tried to keep the organization going,” Serafin says. “But it got to the point we were just spinning our wheels.”

Last November brought the retirement of his business partner, Tom Wiegand — also the long-time president of the club, which hasn’t met officially in about a dozen years. Despite Serafin’s reverence for the club’s history, he decided it should not exist in name only and instead should end on a high note.

He has filed paperwork with the state to unincorporate the club. And rather than let the group’s $16,000 bank account do nothing but accrue interest, he will be writing checks to 11 charities and agencies active on the south end.

“The money’s going to go back into the community,” Serafin says.

A small chunk will be spent on what will be called Serenity Memorial Park, a triangle of land owned by UFS at Jefferson, George and Center streets, across from Rocket Tire Service. The acre park, to be maintained by UFS, will host a park bench, along with a statue of Jesus Christ. It will be open to the public and dedicated to “all families that have lost a loved one to violence,” Serafin says.

Those plans, along with the check disbursement, were to be announced at a press conference on June 12, after which the South Side Business Club will survive only in memory.

“It’s a little sad,” Serafin says. “But life goes on.”


Source: (Peoria) Journal Star,


Information from: Journal Star,