By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
A lot of people believe that people’s lives have seasons, Diane Stowers is one of them. For 31 years, she owned and operated the BP Gas Station located at 807 W. Atkinson Ave.
And while her season as owner has come to an end, her season of mentor has just begun.
Stowers recently sold the gas station to Kai Trimble-Lea of Kreeation Enterprises LLC, who received a $893,000 loan with help from Northwest Side Community Development Corporation through the group’s PNC Fund.
In addition to purchasing the station, Trimble-Lea has used the loan to improve the pumps – they now offer diesel gas – and the interior, which now features the Kwik Bitez Kitchen & Grill and a grab-and-go section. But all this wouldn’t have been possible without Stowers.
Stowers and her husband Jimmy first bought the gas station on Aug. 1, 1990. The couple operated the establishment together for many years before Jimmy’s death in 2004. After nearly two decades of running the gas station on her own, Stowers decided to sell. She had one stipulation: the next owner had to be African American.
“Our community needs to be representative of us with businesses,” Stowers said. “That was important to me to stay Black-owned so we could represent our community.”
Enter Raymond Monk. For years Raymond Monk, a community organizer for Northwest Side CDC, had frequented Stowers’ gas station, but it wasn’t until 2020 that he first met her. Northwest Side CDC was helping people register to vote, and given the station’s high foot traffic, Monk asked if he could set up a table there.
Stowers gave him the OK and they started talking. He learned she was looking to sell, and while she had had several offers, she was holding out for an African American owner. A few months later, Monk connected Stowers to Northwest Side CDC which in turn connected her to Trimble-Lea.
The continuation of local leadership is an example of the group’s mission, Monk said.
“It speaks volumes about our commitment to revitalization,” he said. “Our longstanding tagline is community development at work, and this speaks to that.”
Representation is important, Trimble-Lea said, and that applies to every field.
“I think it’s important because we are the United States of America and that representation should show itself in every aspect and in every arena,” she said.
She continued, “People are proud of ownership. Ownership is important. To even show that to our youth, to show that it can be accomplished with hard work, I think that’s important…It shows no one is above or beneath accomplishing any goal.”
As a Black female business owner for the past 20 years, she is an advocate for ownership and entrepreneurship especially in the Black community. Blacks didn’t always have that right, she said, and that impact is still seen today.
“We should be as great as we can possibly be,” Trimble-Lea said. “That was instilled in myself and in my two brothers that there’s nothing you can’t do with hard work. I think that’s important that we show that.”
This is Trimble-Lea’s first experience with a venture of this sort, although she has experience with owning commercial properties, and as such, Stowers has stayed on board as a mentor. Her main advice is to treat everyone as special.
“I think that every person that comes through the door is special, and we treat them as such,” Stowers said. “Every person that comes through the door is one more person that helps us to stay here and be open.”
Stowers cited a large part of the gas station’s success to the community. It stayed cleaned because they respected it, she said.
“The advice I have to her is continue to give great service to the customers,” she said. “We’re here to serve the community, the community is not serving us.”
As part of Northwest Side CDC’s commitment, it continues to help businesses post lending by continuing to support them and ensure they thrive and succeed. For example, the group is working with Trimble-Lea to reintroduce the gas station to residents.
While Monk’s work involves working with and supporting residents and businesses, it’s a practice he maintains in his personal life too.
He noted that supporting the community means patronizing local businesses and giving them constructive criticism when and if needed. As part of his job, he’s working with residents to raise their level of expectations.
“Don’t take a second-class perspective to your neighborhood,” he said, set standards such as quality service and sanitation and hold businesses to it.
The gas station is expected to reopen shortly, in the meantime, Trimble-Lea is already thinking of future goals. She’s hoping to contract with trucking companies and local businesses, continue contracting with community funeral homes, create a gas delivery service and open another station.
Both Stowers and Trimble-Lea are looking forward to what the future holds.
“We want to be that community gas station,” Trimble-Lea said. “Sort of that one-stop shop where you can come in and get everything, but that service is there and that’s important.”