What’s up with Downtown?

June 21, 2019Doug Peters, President and CEO of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce

The effort to maintain and grow the heart of our city is a lot like housework.  You might think you’re just about finished, when in reality you’re just starting over.

In her book The Life and Death of Great American Cities, world renowned writer and urban revitalization pioneer Jane Jacobs said, “Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”

In early 2016, the Abilene Chamber of Commerce – through its Abilene Industrial Foundation (AIF) – began a partnership with the City of Abilene to begin a strategic focus on the rebirth of our downtown.  As luck would have it and with thanks to the likes of Ms. Judy Matthews, the Dodge Jones Foundation and many others, Abilene’s historic downtown wasn’t on a respirator.  It was plugging along, largely without a strategic vision, with great hope by many that a one-off Downtown hotel project would put our downtown on solid footing for at least a generation or two.

And while that’s true, the effort has roots in an issue far broader than a hotel project.

For the Abilene Chamber and the 1,300 member businesses we represent, most all of whom stare down the same challenge of workforce availability, it became apparent that those we seek to attract as contributors to our workforce have something in common:  the interest in living in a thriving community with a hip, urban core where they feel safe, the environment is clean and there are things to do.

The generous and visionary members of the AIF got it.  Not only did they provide their own private funding to create what we refer to today as the “Festival District” as a means to entice a convention hotel developer to invest here, they also knew that the key to long-term viability of our central business district should not and could not become a burden on the taxpayer.  They bought what Jane Jacobs was selling in her book from 1961 – our downtown needed a renewed and continuing energy.

Abilene, Texas – not unlike any other great American city – has a whole host of priorities, from public safety to infrastructure and more.  For the private sector to bring a community-based vision to city hall and dump it on the city with a note saying, “do this” would’ve been both unfair and disrespectful.  Instead, the Chamber’s AIF along with other public and private partners began a much larger process of assembling the thoughts and perspective of every Abilenian we could get to engage in crafting a bold, Abilene-centric vision for what will be our downtown.

And while facilitated by a nationally-acclaimed urban planning architect, the content of the vision, released in mid-2017, was exactly what it was intended to be – a market-driven vision of “everybody’s neighborhood,” written by those who appreciate and respect the unique challenges of our downtown, to help guide us through a never-ending process of long-term economic success.

No, it wasn’t written by an outsider with no value placed on who we are and what we stand for as a community and then given to us to implement.  It was written by the people of Abilene.  The document captured the input of hundreds upon hundreds of people, collected over an eight-month process.  We saw high school and college students, airmen and their families, downtown stakeholders, area business owners, developers and members of the community at-large contribute mightily to the process.

And you know what?  It is working.

While the Chamber, the AIF and now the Abilene Downtown Initiative can’t and won’t take credit for a single good thing happening in our downtown today, we are proud to say that the work we’ve done with the support and resources of many people has compelled many to pay attention.  To join the “movement.”  And to contribute their own unique projects as a part of Abilene’s urban renaissance.

All for the sake of a better Abilene, an enhanced world class workforce and a boost to our tax base to support many local priorities.

As of last count, including the downtown Convention headquarters hotel, there is nearly $125 million in new, public and private investment in the downtown pipeline.  Every effort, every investment – large or small – counts toward building a better urban environment and in turn, a better Abilene, Texas.

So where am I going with all of this?

I want to say “thank you” to those who are driving the goodness that’s happening downtown.  Those who have and continue to support the effort, those who continue to volunteer their time, the people who lay awake at night first trying to figure out their own downtown game plan and then how to manage the risk to make it happen, I say “well done.”  We’re far from finished (remember the housework analogy?), we’re off to a solid start, and people are talking about good things.  There’s an undeniable energy around the effort, and we’re grateful for every single soul who’s come to the table.

But don’t forget – downtown is but one area of the Chamber’s strategy.  We’ve not abandoned the work we do on behalf of our members in the areas of advocacy (did you know the Chamber weighed in on nearly 70 bills that impacted our members in the last legislative session?), promoting our members, industrial recruitment and retention, workforce development, tourism development, the arts, leadership programming, young professional engagement and development, military affairs and every other area we’re committed to.

Once again, thank you to those of you who have been or currently are involved in the downtown effort.  Every positive comment you make on social media platforms matter.  It encourages the brave men, women and families who are risking their tomorrow by investing today.  To the dreamers and the check writers, keep on keeping on.  What you’re doing will be highlighted in the next chapter of our already storied history.  And to those who started it all – the Matthews family, the Dodge Jones Foundation and many others, thank you for not allowing the first impression our community makes on many people to end up on a respirator.

#TeamAbilene!

Doug

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