Editor’s note: Continuing with our spring theme of “Welcome Back” here is another Abilene person that returned to her roots in Dickinson County. The article was written before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Julie Roller Weeks grew up about 20 miles southeast of Abilene in Woodbine, but when she took the job as Abilene’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau director in late 2016, she saw it as an opportunity to come home.
“I’m not from Abilene, but being from Dickinson County, Abilene is our county seat,” she said. “I consider myself ‘Abilene by Choice.’”
“I’m a boomerang. I went out and worked in other communities. I saw what’s out there and you realize home is pretty good,” she said with a laugh.
A graduate of Chapman High School, Julie received a degree in journalism/mass communications with an emphasis in public relations from Kansas State University before going on to hold several economic development positions around the state and in Topeka working with the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s “From the Land of Kansas” program.
When the Abilene CVB job opened in 2016, Julie felt it was the perfect opportunity.
“I could return home, return back to an industry I love, stay in this area and what better place than Abilene?” she said at the time.
Since then, Julie has invested in the community, not only as CVB director, but also as a resident. She joined some local organizations and got involved in the community. She married Ryan Weeks and he moved to Abilene. They bought a house (which was featured during the 2019 Homes for the Holidays tour).
“When I say I’m ‘Abilene by Choice,’ that means I truly want to be here,” Julie explained. “If you’re working in a community you have a connection. You care differently. Your decision-making is different. You think about the long-term effects of what’s going on.”
Abilene by Choice
Not long after coming to Abilene, Julie began talking about being ‘Abilene By Choice.’
That moniker applies not only to people who grew up here and then came back, but also to new people who come in and make Abilene their home.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here. Whether you go back to your own hometown or somebody else’s hometown, there really are opportunities,” she said.
The idea of Abilene by Choice is a narrowing of the concept “Rural by Choice,” created by Marci Penner of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, an organization that helps rural communities.
In 2007, Penner organized a group of people between the ages of 21 to 39 to talk about the “Rural by Choice” concept, Julie explained.
“Not rural by default. Not staying in a rural community or coming back because you can’t make it in a big city and don’t have other options, but choosing to live in a rural community,” Julie said.
At the time, Julie was still living in a bigger community in the state, but she really believed in the mission. Fast forward a few years and today she and her husband are living the concept.
After getting the CVB job in Abilene, Julie commuted back and forth to Manhattan for awhile but when she and Ryan decided to buy a home, they looked in Abilene.
“Looking at home prices in Manhattan or larger cities, we couldn’t cash flow it. We both have good jobs and things, but we wanted to afford a life,” she explained. “I don’t just want to work for a mortgage and I also don’t want to always have to be ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’
“What you can get in terms of value for your dollar in Abilene, Kansas, is much different than what you can get in Manhattan,” she added.
By choosing to purchase their home in Abilene, the Weekses were able to buy a historic home built by Abilene telephone magnate Cleyson Brown.
“People say they love my home and it’s awesome and the thing is — I didn’t pay that much for it,” she said with a laugh. “All things considered, I couldn’t get that in another town. I love the history of our homes. We have a lot of properties here in Abilene that are not insanely priced. We do have opportunities to own a home.”
She recalls the story of a person who spent most of their adult life in Kansas City but then returned home to southwest Kansas.
“People asked him ‘don’t you miss going to see the Chiefs, the Royals, the museums?’ and he said ‘When I lived in Kansas City I didn’t have the money to do that’,” Julie recalled.
But after moving to southwest Kansas, Julie related the man saw more Chiefs and Royals games then he ever did while living in the KC metro area.
Grow your own
“We have some people who have created some good wealth in our communities and they’ll want to retire at some point,” Julie said. “If there aren’t people to take those jobs, where do you go for those services?’
Julie points to the Dickinson County CEO program launched last year by the Dickinson County Economic Development Corporation. The entrepreneurship program seeks to prepare people, especially youth, to contribute to economic development and sustainable communities.
“When you’re growing up in a community, you don’t always realize all the jobs that exist. That’s why I’m really excited about the Dickinson County CEO program that will not only get kids to start their own businesses, but learn about existing businesses,” she said.
“So whether they do their own business or make a connection with a business owner, maybe go to college or tech school, then come back and work in that business and eventually take over, we need to share the opportunities that are here,” Julie said.
“The grass isn’t always greener somewhere else. You don’t have to tell your children to go away and make something of yourself. We want you to come back here,” she said.
“If you look around our community there are a lot of people who are either from here who chose to stay or came back here or people from other towns who chose to make Abilene their hometown.”
She named off about a dozen people who fit that description, noting they have become “wonderful members of our community.”
Wealth of riches
With her background in economic development, Julie feels Abilene has much to be proud of and amenities other communities would love to have.
“It’s easy to focus on what we don’t have, but look at what we do have,” she said. “Other communities would love to have two grocery stores, we have many pharmacies. It’s a matter of changing your outlook. Look at what you can build out of a situation verses focusing on what you don’t have.”
Julie disagrees with those who say there’s not enough to do in Abilene. She refers to the plethora of events scheduled each year and notes that with only 52 weekends a year it’s hard to find time to keep up with everything.
“Sometimes I almost think there’s too much, but the events cater to different audiences. Not everybody is going to go see a show at Great Plains Theatre and not everyone is going to go to a lunch and learn at the Eisenhower (Library and Museum),” she said.
“We have a lot to celebrate here, but can we do better? Absolutely. Like the 4-H motto says, ‘Make the Best Better.’ I want to be part of making Abilene better and I think there’s a big group of people in town who want to do that. But it’s grass roots and it’s incremental. Change doesn’t happen overnight.”
Julie said she’s proud to be an Abilene resident and she’s not afraid to spread the word.
“You know, Texans aren’t afraid to tell you how great Texas is. We need to channel some of that and tell people we have a lot to offer,” Julie said. “Abilene is a great place. Kansas has a lot to offer.
“This is where I want to raise my family. We have a lot of good things going on here. We have a lot of good things going on in Dickinson County,” she said.
Contact Kathy Hageman at firstname.lastname@example.org .