Several South Park business owners met there regularly, on Friday nights, to listen to The Fremonts, a local blues band. They shared stories, blew off steam, and wondered how they could get more customers to realize they existed. Then someone had an “aha moment,” according to Sam Chammas, owner of the Whistle Stop and Station Tavern.
Since the retailers in South Park often had open house events and sales to attract customers, why not coordinate it so that every business owner did it at the same time?
By holding such an event at night, they could also promote South Park as a safe, walkable neighborhood, because the community once had a sketchy past, and that perception still lingered.
"We asked ourselves, 'How do we do this?' " recalled Lisa Vella, who co-owns the South Bark Dog Wash with Donna Walker.
Sam suggested a name for the event from an Australian movie called “Walkabout,” where two siblings stranded in the Outback are helped by a teen-aged Aborigine out on a walkabout, a rite of passage during which he must survive on his own in the wilderness. “Walking was a key part of everyone getting around South Park,” Sam said.
Once the group had a name and a concept for the event, they had to find a way to promote it. Since this was 12 years ago, before social media, Lisa spread the word about the first Walkabout in what seems completely appropriate for this tale – she walked the neighborhood, door to door, like a politician, telling people to save the date and come on down. She also sent out postcards.
The result? About 100 people attended, which isn't bad, considering the event was put on by about 10 businesses. It took place on a Friday from 6 to 10 p.m. and included businesses only at the north end of South Park, from Grape Street up to Juniper. Why Friday? So business owners could meet up afterward and listen to The Fremonts, of course!
Walkabouts Take Off
From those humble beginnings, the Walkabout took off. "It grew really fast because of the festive socializing," Lisa said. The Beech Street section of South Park joined the following year. Eventually, the Walkabouts were transitioned to Saturday, because businesses decided it would be easier for people to attend if they weren’t rushing home from work.
What makes it so successful? Lisa listed several reasons: the mix of shops and restaurants South Park has, the customer service, the support the community gives to local businesses, and the support the merchants give back to the community, celebrating the neighborhood.
It also celebrates individuality. “What I loved about it then and what I love about it now is the do-it-yourself spirit among those businesses,” Sam said. “Now it’s seven times the size and it still has that do-it-yourself spirit. Each business has its own little event.”
Those little events ultimately lure people out of their homes and into South Park's business district.
“It’s all about getting people off the couch,” Sam said, “away from their laptops, and getting out and doing retail as it’s done best -- face to face, in the shops.”