BBA president Lolita Jackson
BBA president Lolita Jackson

With concerns about a new form of competition on the horizon, a group of small independent Buckhead retail merchants decided in 1951 that binding together their strengths would be mutually beneficial for all.

They gave birth to the Buckhead Merchants Association, which today, 60 years later, thrives as the Buckhead Business Association.

With a membership of more than 600 large and small business members, the Buckhead Business Association has two generally accepted principal objectives: the promotion of community well-being and the proliferation of networking opportunities among its professionals. Longtime members believe it still exists to cultivate and safeguard community business interests, much as it did in 1951.

Actually, the original timing was perfect. Just seven years later in 1958, construction began on Lenox Square shopping center, which transformed traditional shopping patterns for Atlantans and many in the Southeast.

As it turned out, Edward Noble, the astute businessman who introduced that previously unknown new shopping concept to Atlanta in 1959 in the form of the open-courtyard Lenox Square, became one of the strongest supporters of the new businesses association, according to Sam Massell, former Atlanta mayor and president of the Buckhead Coalition

Massell said he believed the Buckhead merchants saw the reality of a mall on the horizon and “wanted to be out front with their organization.”

Buckhead was in unincorporated Fulton County in those days, but it was only a matter to time until it would be annexed into the city of Atlanta.

Over the years, the Buckhead Merchants Association has changed names several times — to the Buckhead Business & Development Association, the Buckhead Businessmen’s Association and finally to Buckhead Business Association.

The first female president took office in 1989. She was Kay Shirley, a financial planner with Financial Development Corporation. The president-elect during the association’s 50th anniversary celebration was Vivian DuBose, daughter of Lenox Square developer Ed Noble.

Now, as the organization enters its 60th year, the group has elected its third consecutive female president, and fourth in six years, and has its first-ever African-American president, Lolita B. Jackson, external affairs manager for Georgia Power.

Jackson receives the gavel from outgoing president attorney Heather Wright, who followed Elizabeth Gill, CEO of Express Employment Professionals. Donna L. Kain was president in 2006, when she was a vice president of The Buckhead Bank. And, Catherine Cattles of First Citizens Bank is seheduled to become president for 2012.

There is not much written history of the association and most of the original founders are no longer around. A recent published list of past presidents starts with Sam Massell in 1983. His son Steve Massell was president in 2001, making the Massells the only father and son who have presided over the BBA.

The elder Massell recalls that the BBA had no office and no staff in the early days. “The organization was run out of a cardboard box in those days.”

Jenn Thomas, the executive director of BBA, had no idea where the box or boxes might be. She suggested maybe Michael Moore, the unofficial “historian” for the association, might know. But Moore said he had no idea either.

What Moore does remember about 1951 was that “Buckhead was sort of a stepchild” because it wasn’t yet part of Atlanta.

“There weren’t a lot of business associations — there was only the Atlanta Chamber, which only served the central business district. That is really the reason the association started, to give the merchants a place to stand.” he said.

Business broker Nick Nicholson joined BBA in 1986 and said, “It had a different character and personality. The membership was more old-line Atlantans.”

He said the organization met in the cafeteria of the Camblestone retirement facility on Pharr Road in those days.

“The environment wasn’t 100 percent right with people in wheelchairs and such greeting members as they arrived,” Nicholson said. “The setup also made it hard to circulate among members.”

He recalled that in 1986 women members were “a small part of the organization.”

It was after the BBA moved its weekly breakfast meetings to Anthony’s restaurant on Piedmont Road that “it started attracting younger people and more people to serve on committees,” he said. “It turned into a more dynamic organization,”

Moore became a BBA member in 1998, but he had visited the association for a few years before at the invitation of William Self, who served 25 years as pastor of Wieuca Baptist Church and was BBA president in 1990.

Albert Maslia, with Social Expressions Consultants, has been called upon to be BBA president three times — in 1986, 1991 and 1994.

“Anytime we could not find someone to serve as president we would call up Maslia and say ‘we need you one more time,’” Massell said, “and he would agree to do it.”

Actually, the BBA and Buckhead Coalition have had a close relationship since 1988, when the coalition was formed by BBA member Charles Loudermilk, founder of Buckhead-based Aaron’s Inc., and Buckhead businessman Sam Friedman.

Massell said the coalition helped the BBA financially in the coalition’s early years. “The BBA grew in members and serious agendas, coming of age with a staff and office,” Massell said.

“The BBA played a key role in lobbying for the Ga. 400 extension,” Massell said. “The coalition had the money for advertising and such. But, when we needed warm bodies at [Atlanta] City Hall, the BBA members filled the buses to downtown.”

Every year, the BBA has an annual luncheon, with a prominent speaker. Added in recent years has been the Buckhead Business of the Year Award.

The BBA also holds quarterly luncheons at 103 West special events facility, weekly morning breakfast meetings every Thursday at the City Club of Buckhead and monthly after-hours mixers at various locations around Buckhead.

In addition, the BBA hosts the annual Taste of Buckhead Business event in the spring, which usually draws around 1,000 people to taste foods from Buckhead restaurants and learn about local Buckhead businesses.

In recent years, the Education Committee of the BBA, headed up by real estate agent Jill Heineck, has become very active in support programs for Buckhead’s elementary schools and North Atlanta High School.

At 60, the BBA has come of age.

John Schaffner

John Schaffner was founding editor of Reporter Newspapers.