Banking Icon Delivers for World Games
Updated: Nov 10
Bob Dickerson: Birmingham Black business champion delivered elusive winning edge to locals during World Games
The World Games brought an international spotlight to Birmingham – along with a hefty $14 million tab in its wake. As Birmingham and Jefferson County, along with area businesses, pool cash to make up the deficit, and critics continue to debate the value of the 11 day-event, the games produced clear winning results for dozens of small black-owned businesses and one of their strongest advocates. Kelley Ingram Park for five days was a center of commerce, culture and camaraderie. The park transformed into the Civil Rights District Marketplace, a festival with music, vendors and performances all designed to shine attention on small local businesses. The concept was the vision of Bob Dickerson, president of the Birmingham Business Resource Center. Dickerson wanted to ensure that small Black businesses were included in the economic value and potential of the World Games. “We learned that the official World Games market would not big enoughto accommodate everyone. That meant there was another 30 or 40 who would not have had a place that would attract people so they could sell their products and services, so we decided we would take up that task,” he said. “We chose the Civil Rights District because it has an automatic draw, and it is one the most popular districts in the city. It just made sense.” The Civil Rights District Marketplace embodied the philosophy of early Black entrepreneur and millionaire A.G. Gaston, whose mantra for business success was “find a need and fill it.” It was a natural evolution for Dickerson, founder of the annual A.G. Gaston Conference, an economic empowerment and business development summit. Dickerson also knew the business magnate personally and worked for him early in his career.
Dickerson turned to Jasmine Allen, owner of Destination Birmingham to organize and manage the event. “Our event proved that having large events coming to the city are awesome, but you cannot forget the local community, because despite what happens those are going to be the people inevitably who are going to support you,” Allen said. Allen said she was amazed by the strong and sustained community support during the event. That momentum provided clear evidence that the public wanted to support hyper local and small businesses based in their community, she said. “Our event was getting the local community involved and making money for local businesses,” she recalled. The crowds continued to fill Kelly Ingram Park, even in the face of other planned events related to the World Games and spinoff activitiesthroughout the city. “There was just so much going on around town that it was a surprise that so many people wanted to attend this particular event,” Allen said. “It fit what we had envisioned. We had a constant flow of people from opening to closing, and they asked us to stay open later.” Allen said she was most proud of the support that Birmingham showed for its businesses. The planning, the location and the timing proved to be a winner. “It was the right recipe for success,” she said. “We can intentionally support small businesses on large scale.”
Dickerson estimated that the entire event cost about $120,000 to produce. A seasoned businessman, Dickerson was able to secure key sponsors and partnerships to absorb the cost. That included a major sponsorship from Mastercard. The sponsorships allowed the Civil Rights District Marketplace to offer its space and promotion to vendors at no cost to the businesses. “That was really a game changer,” Dickerson said. “We’re a nonprofit organization, so Mastercard provided the funding that allowed us to do it and allowed us to do it on a high level. We planned on going all out, and fortunately it was sponsorship dollars, and we didn’t mind spending in on the visitors and the vendors.” Thousands visited the park over the five-days of the marketplace. Dickerson cited several logistical reasons for the festival’s success, including the central location of the park, its visibility, and its proximity to a steady flow of traffic. “And then we were loud and had a band we were jamming, and people wanted to come out here and have a good time,” he said with a laugh. “They sat out there and there brought their chairs, so it had a music festival feel.” Numerous news reports during the Word Games documented problems with the official Merchant’s Market several blocks aways near the BJCC. The location was even changed following complaints from vendors that it was not close enough to crowds attending the games. On the other hand, Dickerson and his team at Kelly Ingram Park had no such issues. In fact, most stories detailing problems at Merchant’s Market also carried a disclaimer differentiating it from the jam packedaction at the Civil Rights District Marketplace. “We had the whole park to work with,” Dickerson said. “I was happy that we were about to do something, and people made money. Some people who wouldn’t go to the World Games market came to our place, and vendors had a line the whole time.” Still, Dickerson stresses that the event was designed to complement the World Games rather than compete with it. “This was my contribution to the World Games and not necessarily trying to take something away from it,” he said. Dickerson said his nearly week-long event was a new activity for the Birmingham Business Resource Center. “It didn’t stop the rest of our work from going on,” he said. “We were still doing lending and counseling, so this was on top of it.” Still, the festivities outdoors fit with the mission of the agency to support small businesses. Dickerson began to receive requests to make his marketplace a regular event even before the first event had concluded. The need certainly exists, he agrees. “I’m still getting good feedback and I’ve got people saying do it again,” he said. “We should be using Kelly Ingram Park more. It is a good, solid location so I’m keeping that in mind too.”