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Every Story Has a Backstory

August 17, 2020Scott Hibbs, Chairman, Chamber Facilities Taskforce, Enprotec / Hibbs & Todd Inc

You may be wondering what exactly happened at last week’s City Council meeting. Many have asked, and as valued member and investor of the Abilene Chamber we feel the need to explain exactly what’s happening.

We are trying to buy a building.

The only reason this building has been put out to bid is because the Chamber has worked with the city for more than a year to try to buy it for these purposes.

For over two decades, your Chamber has been a tenant in a downtown building, paying rent each month with no equity to show our members for it. We tried to buy the building we’re in, but a different buyer was chosen. We’re still paying rent for occupancy in the downtown, a place we believe we need to be to help with one of the main visions found in the TIP Strategy of helping to create downtown as a center for employment. Building ownership is not foreign to Chambers of Commerce. More than 70 percent of Chambers nationwide own and maintain their own property. After all, it’s often the place of entry to newcomers, visitors and others who are visiting or considering our community. A positive first impression matters.

Rewind to nearly two years ago, when we began to realize that the Chamber should begin to consider an investment on behalf of the 2200 members it represents through its various programs. Controlling our occupancy costs and building member equity for the long-term were parts of the objective. At that time, our then-Chairman of the Board, elected by our board of directors appointed a task force to consider the options.

We then began a broad search and a lot of soul searching to make a decision. We closely examined our financial ability – thanks to some really smart business leaders who gathered to complete that assessment. We came to understand what we could afford. To date, we have looked at more than 15 different buildings and structures in downtown and outside of downtown. And although our service to our community and specifically our members covers all corners of Abilene, we believe strongly that the Abilene Chamber of Commerce needs to remain committed to Abilene’s downtown, exhibited by its investment.

So, what does any of this have to do with last week’s City Council meeting?

We are trying to buy a building. And not just any building. In fact, we are trying to buy a building we could afford, across the street from our other offices that house our Convention & Visitors Bureau and our Cultural Affairs Council. A building that’s been underutilized and supported by the taxpayers for many years; a building that with the proper investment and care could be a remarkable front door for those visitors and newcomers who often visit us first; centrally located with a ground floor presence; and perhaps most importantly large enough to house not only the Chamber, but resource providers who provide services – free of charge – to any start up or existing business in literally any area of need (such as America’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and Small Business Administration (SBA).

That concept (take a look at draft renderings here) also includes the Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) and the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), both new to the community. Included in the plan is a minority business development center to help Historically Underutilized Businesses (HUB) gain minority business certification, contracts with the government and publicly traded companies to help increase their chances of business success. We’d hoped for closer alignment with the Abilene Black Chamber of Commerce, with a plan to offer them space to meet, to hang their hat, and to call home. Oh, and parking. Free parking available to the public after business hours and on the weekends.

In short, friends, the Chamber’s two-plus years of work to identify a building led us time and again to the T&P Freight Warehouse at 901 North First and Pine Street also known as the building with the big pink flamingo out front.

Before we bid on that building, we closely examined what the impact of the work done inside it – if successful – would be. Could we justify it? Would it matter?

Let me say this, we believe, conservatively speaking, that co-locating these resources together achieves four things:

  • A one-stop, “no wrong door” approach to small business and entrepreneurial development, critical factors in the TIP Strategy including an invitation to the City to house an Office of Business Ombudsman to help businesses navigate the often-frustrating processes within City Hall.
  • Reduced occupancy costs for all the entities (including the Chamber) who would gather and operate under that roof – for the long term – allowing more resources to be directed at service delivery through co-locating together in a visible, conveniently located place.
  • A conservative estimate of 150 new small businesses birthed, 750 new jobs created, 4,300 small business jobs retained and more than $35 million in new investment in our City in the first three years.
  • And, hope, help and opportunity for all of Abilene, including those who have been and are currently underserved.

The Chamber’s intended use wasn’t to compete with the other bidder, but rather to benefit the entire community in a way that returns far more than the higher bid to the community. That’s the way the City advertised the building – not simply on the basis of price, but with consideration on the intended use of the facility. It’s believed that this unified use would be the highest and best use for the long-term. 

Of the 150 businesses forecasted above, what if one of them becomes the “next big thing” in our community? What if five are new restaurants? How many potential tenants is that for existing and future property owners? How much sales tax will filter through our community?

The Chamber, as a private association of area businesses, has been here for 113 years. We aren’t going anywhere. The SBDC has been in service here for 40 years. It isn’t going anywhere. The Chamber will never compete with its members. It will never operate a venue. Or a restaurant. But, it does have a right – and a need – to have a home.

“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” We’re just trying to help people fish.

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