In Austin, Texas, the catch phrase is “Keep Austin Weird.”
All of the small businesses in the ‘old Austin’ district sell t-shirts with their logos on the front and the catch phrase on the back. The idea is to present a united front. Businesses are looking out for one another – they have a common interest in preserving the quirky character of the area. And the old adage remains true: there’s safety (and strength) in numbers.
With a City Council election right around the corner and a new year just underway, the ongoing discussion about how to preserve the integrity and character of the South End is as lively as ever. One of the most pressing issues is how to keep the presence of corporate businesses to a low roar—easier said than done since rents are high enough that the big chains are often the only ones with enough cash flow to subsist. But like the folks in Texas, South End business owners have banded together.
Originally formed in 1978 and more formally incorporated in 1993, the South End Business Alliance (SEBA) might be the single-most important entity in the neighborhood; without it, we could end up looking like South Bay. SEBA provides a forum for small business owners to strategize ways of staying afloat, devise cross-promotions, organize fundraisers and just generally share information about what they observe.
Strikingly, it transcends the competitive nature of owning a business.
“It’s an all-volunteer, non-subsidized, grass roots effort,” said Frank Campanale, SEBA board member and owner of , a Latin interiors showroom at 409 Harrison Ave.
“There are upwards of 170 members paying annual dues of $250. We’ve chosen to collaborate on finding ways to both maintain and grow, to celebrate and promote the neighborhood. We brainstorm methods of leveraging the talent and resources that draw people here to begin with."
The Need to Walk the Talk
“The South End is 1.5 square miles of land,” he continued. “And yet within that small space we have such a wealth of history, culture, music, dance, theater, restaurants, celebrity chefs, galleries, developing technology—it’s mind boggling.”
There’s an important distinction to be made, however, between those that say they love the richness of the neighborhood and those that actively support it. Campanale stressed that SEBA strives to get more locals walking their talk and to elevate their support “to a point beyond words.”
SEBA had its annual members meeting yesterday, and tonight the organization will hold a fundraising event at in the form of (see our event calendar).
Speaking by phone yesterday afternoon, Campanale said the annual meeting was “highly interactive with a lot of people participating,” providing a valuable forum to recap 2010 and outline a game plan for 2011.
“We went over the data gathered from some member surveys that circulated last fall, which helped us break down the plan for 2011 into five areas,” he said.
Between those five sections, SEBA will expand its PR and marketing efforts, help its members make the best use of technology and social media outlets, encourage small networking events and develop ways of partnering with the city to maintain ease of access to (and use of) the neighborhood.
One of the more exciting proposals on the table could call for a red carpet: SEBA is discussing a new ‘premiere event’ that would really showcase everything the South End has to offer.
“When you consider the wealth of resources, shame on us if we can’t throw one hell of a party,” Campanale said. “This would likely be a weekend long, multi-medium event with art, music, fashion, theater, tech trade – all of it. It boils down to taking it beyond talk and making something happen.”
And this might be a perfect time to do just that: the South End is just as (if not more) vulnerable to the financial hardships that have hit us all in the last three years. Now more than ever, small business people need residents to shop local.
“We lost eleven members this year because their businesses closed, and we want to make sure that isn’t taken lightly,” Campanale said.
“I suspect there are more holding on for dear life, suffering in silence. We need to find ways of handling these situations before they get to the breaking point. And locals need to better understand the impact their choices have on the neighborhood they love.”
Keep the South End Weird.