OKALOOSA ISLAND — There was nothing but sun, sand and a handful of concrete picnic tables in the summer of 1977 when John Hambleton Jr. conjured up his first business venture at Newman C. Brackin Wayside Park.
At just 19 years old, Hambleton purchased a little shack on wheels, which he'd pull behind his 1965 stick-shift Ford Mustang to the park's concrete lot each day. The young entrepreneur would sell snow cones, boiled peanuts and soft drinks to the thousands of beachgoers who frequented the remote park on Okaloosa Island.
The area is known nowadays as The Boardwalk.
On Monday, Hambleton stood inside his business — Islander's Coastal Outfitters — in the same place he sold snow cones all those years ago. The faded, airbrushed sign for his first business — Snack Shack — is mounted above his successful beach boutique.
The Boardwalk, Hambleton said, has changed tremendously since he was a teenager. The property leases to four restaurants and a dessert shop — The Crab Trap, Rockin Tacos, Floyd's Shrimp House, Al's Beach Club and Burger Bar and Pino Gelato. Retail shopping includes Coastal Currents, Kitty Hawk Kites, Surfside Outfitters, Tropical Friends and Islander's.
Special events, fireworks shows, beach movie nights, splash pads, playground and volleyball nets bring beachgoers away from the shoreline to The Boardwalk daily.
"What attracted me to that area is the same thing that attracts me here today," Hambleton said as he looked up at the Snack Shack sign on a recent spring day. "It was an under-served market. It's just been great to see The Boardwalk and the area continue to develop and improve. I think it's pretty neat to look back on what it was versus what it is now."
The Boardwalk continues to be a revolving door for restaurants and shops, with many leaving the park since the early 2000s. Others, like The Crab Trap, have remained.
Misty Rae Ruthrauff, spokeswoman for Saltwater Restaurants at The Boardwalk, said changes are coming still.
Hambleton — following the closure of Lobster Tail after less than one year — will soon open three businesses in its place. The unnamed project — which will begin with his trademark name "Islander's — will be a Starbucks-licensed coffee shop, bakery and beach supply store.
The businesses likely will open at the end of April.
"We're introducing not just beach gear and beach apparel, but also introducing coffee, desserts, breakfast pastries and snacks and drinks," Hambleton said. "This whole project is putting a puzzle together, so as we're going along we are connecting the pieces.
"The landlord contributed the idea of desserts," he added. "They had a desire to have more dessert options here on The Boardwalk. And for the coffee, we just feel like there is a hole in the market that hasn't been addressed. People will now be able to come and get their favorite Starbucks drinks here."
A bad reputation
It was May of 1992 when Okaloosa County first leased the 12 acres of Wayside Park to Paradise Park for $57,612 annually. The new developers closed the park for two years and spent nearly $3 million before quietly reopening.
The lease allowed for private businesses on what was once was an exclusively public beach. An ironclad part of the agreement preserved public access to the park.
The park opened with a restaurant called Harpoon Hannah's on the top deck along with the Soggy Dollar Saloon. The bottom deck housed the Sporty lady swimwear shop.
In the '70s and '80s, Wayside had a reputation as a hangout for vandals and drug dealers, according to Daily News reports. Hambleton said he remembers driving up in his Mustang to see people passed out on the sand following a night of partying on the beach.
"I didn't know why they were sleeping on the ground all night at that time," Hambleton said. "I just thought they had too much to drink."
The addition of The Boardwalk allowed for the elimination of sunup to sundown hours. Security helped discourage illegal activities that formally haunted that section of beach.
On June 23, 1998, Surfside Ventures took over the 25-year lease from Paradise Park. In its first two years, Surfside added The Crab Trap, Howl at the Moon and The Swamp night club that kept The Boardwalk busy until 4 a.m.
Surfside still leases the property today.
'Party all night'
Thousands of people will flock to The Boardwalk from April 24-28, where some 62 volleyball nets will stretch across the beach from Four Points Sheraton to Beasley Park.
The Emerald Coast Volleyball Week is the park's biggest event of the year; 350 teams and 1,250 competitors participating last year.
Mike Minich, the event's director, said the competition is a huge asset to The Boardwalk. Hundreds of spectators show up each day to watch the event leading up to Sunday's single elimination where the highest-level teams play in front of Al's Beach Club.
"We do volleyball tournaments all day and party all night," Minich said. "It's a high-energy event. We've done this for years, and this year is our 30th anniversary. It's a large money maker, for sure."
Apart from the tournament, Ruthrauff said about 100,000 people visit the little strip of beach at The Boardwalk each season.
The Boardwalk is currently at capacity, but Ruthrauff said the park will continue to make improvements while under its lease until 2039.
Greg Kisela, Okaloosa County's deputy administrator for operations, said The Boardwalk could expand further after the Surfside lease expires. The County Commission will have the ability to approve The Boardwalk and the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier property to be leased as one.
The two adjacent parcels have been leased separately since 1992.
"I think overall everyone appears to be pleased with the transformation of The Boardwalk and the public park," Kisela said. "You've got a nice mixture of entertainment along with the natural beauty of the Gulf of Mexico. I think you'll truly have a tremendous piece of property if the Board of County Commissioners markets The Boardwalk and the Pier and Angler's restaurant to a new tenant later on."