Abilene’s downtown is the heart of our community.
And “as the health of it goes," City Manager Robert Hanna continued, "So does the rest."
“Downtowns are special places,” he said, serving as a cultural, social, commercial, and residential centers. “Abilene is blessed to have all of these components in the downtown because of the work of those that came before us.
"Our job now is to capitalize on that work and leverage it into further growth and prosperity.”
Building on a legacy
Abilene is thankfully, “beyond the days of worrying about our city center being on a respirator,” Abilene Chamber of Commerce president Doug Peters said.
Many still remember Abilene's downtown in the 1980s, said Lynn Barnett, executive director of the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council. The area was a "boarded up, lifeless area attracting no residents or visitors."
“One by one, beginning with the Paramount, then the Grace, The Center for Contemporary Arts, the (National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature), Abilene Ballet Theatre, Frontier Texas!, etc, a new and vibrant life was brought to an area that was on life-support,” Barnett said.
Today, a still-in-the-works downtown convention hotel is expected serve as the major “catalyst” for new development, Mayor Anthony Williams said in his recent State of the City address.
That project expected to be funded through a mix of private donations, Hotel Occupancy Tax dollars, $1.5 million in public sector funds and $40.5 million in private sector development.
Hanna said at a recent council retreat that he planned to bring discussion about the hotel project to the council by spring.
The chamber, Abilene Downtown Association, city of Abilene and others have committed to help advance the cause of downtown, Peters said.
But while many consider the downtown hotel to be essential to the city's future, it's not — by far — the only card in the deck.
An effort of the chamber, the city and more than 1,000 area residents created the City Center Growth and Development Plan, a four-part planning document that identifies key development, infrastructure, and public/private partnership opportunities to spur the successful redevelopment of Abilene’s downtown core, he said.
In recent City Council actions, Williams also created a Downtown Task Force, charged with studying the plan, identifying ways to implement it and recommending realignment of on-street parking in the downtown area, with the aim of increasing the number of parking spaces available.
Among manifold focus areas of chamber's efforts, Peters said are focus on housing, making certain downtown is a clean and safe environment for people to invest in and to visit, improving walkability, and identifying opportunities to leverage public and private investment for the greater good of the community.
“We want to help downtown Abilene to become a recognized to live, work and play, and as a partner we are focused on the elements of an 18-hour downtown rather than one where the population drives home to the suburbs at 5 p.m. each day,” Peters said.
Many already are working directly to bring what Hanna termed their own "sweat equity" toward downtown endeavors.
For example, at 202 Cypress Street is the future home of a 30,000 square-foot commercial development that will include a brewery, Grain Theory, along with other tenants, Hanna said.
Alex Russell and her husband, Justin, are renovating the old Busch Jewelers into a taco bar featuring local produce and fresh ingredients with an interior highlighting pieces by local artists and stocking Texas spirits.
The goal is to have an "updated atmosphere, good food, and a celebration of all things local," Russell said, noting in early March that remediation and abatement had been completed and the couple were in the process of collecting bids to start construction.
And they and others work to bring businesses online, efforts continue to beautify downtown's public image in eye-catching ways.
Based on those successes, nascent plans were recently discussed at a Parks and Recreation board meeting to revivify Minter Park, with ideas floated such as a performance area, digital water curtains and/water mist projection systems, a tree-and-trellis structure that would allow for projector systems, security cameras,or lighting, and seat- and stool-height stones.
Committed to the cause
The yearly Children’s Art & Literacy Festival, venues such as the NCCIL and the city boasting the largest collection of storybook sculptures in the United States have created new opportunities for visitors and helped cement an identity for the community as the “Storybook Capital of America,” Barnett said.
That designation conveys to the rest of the country the value that our community places on art, literacy, and family.
“The arts should remain a strategic partner and focus moving forward, and an anchor for the on-going development of a possible downtown hotel, new restaurants and other businesses,” Barnett said.
But neither the community's storybook components and theme, nor the arts by themselves can be a successful strategy for downtown development, since a downtown is “far more complex than just its cultural elements,” she said.
Creating a "unique urban vibe" that can help attract workforce necessary to long-term economic success is a vital goal, Peters said.
Downtown is the first impression of Abilene many visitors get, "and for those of us who call Abilene home, our downtown’s vitality is a big part of what retains us," said Megan Dobbs, marketing and communications director for Community Foundation of Abilene and a member of the Downtown Association.
Dobbs said that in her opinion, the more the community bolsters imaginative and capable small entrepreneurs, the better downtown and other pockets of town thrive.
From a city perspective, "we need to be careful not to create a regulatory environment that messes up much of what the private sector is already trying to accomplish," Hanna said.
"We need to meet the private sector where their ability to solve a problem is limited, and work with the private sector to solve it," he said. "It's going to take the city and the business community working together to continue to make our downtown into the best version of itself."
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