What do we have here?

February 24, 2020Doug Peters, President and CEO of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce

One look at this headline and the mind can really start to wonder, huh?  “What do we have here” is one of my favorite open-ended questions, and one I love to try to answer.

Of course, much depends on the context in which the question is asked.  When people ask that question about Abilene, Texas my response is usually something like “you’ve got a city full of awesome people doing great things – together!”

And that’s the case in so many sectors of our community – from tourism to economic development to business advocacy to cultural affairs – you get the picture.  Our great city is in a good place, doing great things.

It seems that question gets asked more and more about our downtown.  In fact, there’s so much going on downtown that it might be worth a few paragraphs to update you.

The biggies are the hotels. Yep, plural. One going up, one going down. The new Downtown Convention Hotel is on track – and we hope to celebrate alongside our partners at the City to officially kickoff its construction sometime this summer. It’s in the design phase now – and if you’ve not seen the renderings, check THIS out! While the design isn’t cast in stone, there’s enough there to know that it’ll be spectacular.  Thank you Abilene for not giving up on your dream.

The other hotel project is the pending demolition of the old and tired Civic Plaza Hotel property at 505 Pine Street – right smack dab in front of City Hall.  It’s surrounded by construction fencing and crews are removing the environmentally hazardous stuff that’ll allow for it to soon become dust.  I’m thinking it’d make a cool fundraiser – three swings of the wrecking ball for $5.00.

So then what becomes of the block it currently sits on? It’ll be redeveloped. It’s owned by the Abilene Improvement Corporation (AIC), the same not-for-profit that is working hard to revitalize the Pine Street Corridor.  We’re working with the AIC to identify a developer and encourage the highest and best use of that 92,000 square foot site.  It’s in good hands, for sure.

I will also tell you that a quick scoot around the downtown will give you a quick update on all the good things happening there. People are investing, taking risk, venturing out to experience the constantly improving sights and sounds.  There’s life on the streets, people spending money locally (my personal favorite!) and people living. Lights are lit above the ground floors of many of our buildings. Other communities are asking “how’d you do that?”

It’d be easy to say, “well, we just decided to do it.’” But we all know that no one just decided to do it.

Instead, people came together, in true Abilene fashion, and elected to follow the example set by Mrs. Julia Jones Matthews so many years ago – who in fact did decide to “just do it” and ensure that our downtown didn’t end up the way of many downtown’s in America – on a respirator.

The Grace Museum, the Paramount Theatre, the T&P Depot, the right-of-way along the railroad tracks – all projects undertaken that have continued to inspire the risk takers of today to follow suit. It’s happening in the SoDA District and all across the North District.  And, it’s more than simply a trend. It’s our community taking control of an opportunity that helps us to improve the product that we’re selling – Abilene, Texas.

Mayor Anthony Williams assembled a Task Force to help implement the vision that YOU cast back in 2016, when more than 1,200 members of our community came together to dream about what our downtown can and should be.  That Task Force works closely with the Chamber’s Abilene Downtown Initiative and others to maximize and leverage every public and private dollar being invested.  Smart things are happening thanks to you and your willingness to engage.

Even parking.  Now, I know you might not believe this – but I still stand by my assertion that we don’t have a parking problem downtown, we have a walking problem.  Our downtown was built before automobiles, and much of our available parking was built where great buildings once stood. We hate that. The solution to parking challenges isn’t to tear down a building and cover the lot with asphalt, creating a toothless grin for those who come to see what our city is all about.

Instead, we’re working – alongside our partners at the City – to identify and solidify solutions that make sense. We’re working with private property owners to resolve challenges for daytime and evening/weekend parking. The City has rolled out a plan to change the diagonal parking to a consistent angle that gains new street parking.

But remember this – downtown wasn’t built overnight; it isn’t being revitalized overnight (although at times it seems like it) and all our challenges won’t be solved overnight.  Along with your grace in handling the challenges, think about parking where you can find a spot – and walking a block or two to get to your destination.  Ultimately, a walkable downtown – with traffic calming and other elements that encourage walking – will be commonplace.

Lastly, let’s think too about the criticism of those we’re trying to work with on solutions, especially when we take to social and traditional media to make our complaints.  Let’s work together to find a solution – and not inadvertently send a signal that says “don’t come downtown – there’s no parking!” There IS parking. We might have to walk a block or two, but folks our blocks aren’t that big!

And while I’m on my soapbox, let me challenge you with this, too. I’m seeing more and more litter on our roads and streets, and if not for risking an accident I’d take a photo. It’s embarrassing and I know you’ll agree that we can do better. That’s what people arriving here or passing through see and it leaves quite an impression. If you have a truck, empty the bed of trash and debris or cover it so it doesn’t blow out everywhere. If you’re hauling something and it falls off the trailer, retrieve it. That was a little preachy. Sorry.

Let’s be the best Abilene we can be because, among so many other reasons, we are the product we’re selling when we try to attract workforce so your business can grow.  We want visitors to enjoy what they see and experience and come back. With their checkbooks. And their friends. Right? If you see trash and can pick it up and toss it, please do.  It really does matter.

There. I feel better. I hope to see you around – and heck, if you’re challenged to find a parking spot, holler at me.

Onward!
Doug

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