#AbileneStrong

Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Julie Roller Weeks holds a sign for the #AbileneStrong Campaign which won the Community Awareness Award by the Travel Association of Kansas.

A banner year with over 200,000 people driving down Buckeye Avenue had been predicted for 2020.

The remodeling of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum was expected to boost tourism.

Instead, the spread of COVID-19 closed down not only the tourist attractions but all nonessential businesses in March.

It was then that the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau launched the #AbileneStrong campaign to promote the city to Abilene residents and future visitors.

It was announced last week that campaign was awarded the Community Awareness Award by the Travel Association of Kansas in the medium community marketing budget between $20,000 and $100,000.

“I thought it was a really nice effort that united our community,” Week said of the campaign. “The unity we had in the community was really magical at that time.”

She said many businesses displayed their signs. A large banner was displayed at Last Chance Graphics so people could take pictures.

“I encouraged everybody to submit their photos to me either printing off the Abilene Strong logo, posing with the banner, posing with a sign, something just to show they were Abilene strong,” Weeks said.

She put that on a video which can be seen at abilenekansas.org/blog/2020/04/14/abilenestrong.

“I think it meant a lot for people to see those faces throughout the community that were supporting this effort,” she said.

Tourism

All of Abilene’s tourist attractions except the largest, that being the Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum and Library, have since opened. However, the number of visitors dropped substantially. The CVB closed the Visitors Center and the office. Weeks still mans the office, answering the phone and fielding information.

“I appreciate that the other attractions have been open and doing their best to keep the lights on,” Weeks said. “Good things are still happening. We just need to stay positive.”

The increased sales tax collections show that money is still being spent in the community.

“It can absolutely always be better but, all in the all, we have weathered this storm pretty well,” she said.

She said she had phone calls from two different people asking about the Dickinson County Historical Society and the Parker Carousel.

“People are still looking for things to do but with the largest tourist attraction closed, it is tough. It is really tough,” she said.

She said a newspaper editor on the west coast saw the Abilene billboards on Interstate 70.

“He pulled off and drove through the community. He said Abilene was like a Norman Rockwell painting,” Weeks said. “And he included that in an editorial.”

“It was like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, an idealized version of an America that might or might not still exist — if it ever did at all. And it can be found in Abilene, Kan.,” wrote Greg Jayne in The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash.

She said the hope is that the Midwest will rebound quicker in tourism.

“You can social distance. You can spread out. You can have fresh air,” she said. “We will rebound quicker than the coast. I would hate to be Disney World. I think Abilene will bounce back quicker but it is a slow process. We all have to stay positive and work together.”

The CVB is funded through the transient guest tax. There have been some activity at the hotels with construction workers, the National Greyhound Association events, the Heart of America Greyhound Gathering, the Christian Motorcycle Association and some weddings.

“If that money isn’t coming in, our budget isn’t going to be met,” Weeks said. “We had to make cuts early on. It was really, really difficult.

“At the Visitors Center, with people not traveling, it didn’t make sense to have someone to sit there with no activity going on,” she said.

Weeks said the 2020 budget was $175,000 although an anticipated $200,000 was expected. The amount brought in was $137,000 for the year. October, November and December’s tax will be for the 2021 budget.

“It could be better but it is enough that we have saving. We are able to weather the storm. We made cuts early on. Any additional spending that was not budgeted for was cut. Anything that we didn’t have a contract with we cut and the staff savings has helped. We will end the year in the black.

“It didn’t make sense to spend money when people aren’t traveling,” she said.

Grants

Weeks worked with the city of Abilene to apply for and receive a $132,000 Community Development Block Grant. The grant was distributed to 28 businesses.

“That paperwork is still going on and far from being complete,” she said.

Weeks also worked with the Abilene City Commission to set up live remote meetings over YouTube.

“People say, ‘Oh, you must be bored all the time.’ Absolutely not. The phone is still ringing. Whether they are visiting next week, maybe next year, they are still requesting information,” Weeks said. “We are creating a lot of our own content rather than working with travel writers this year. We are really the focus of a lot of blogs. Everything we do is to just keep Abilene front of mind.”

She said since the pandemic hit, USA Today readers named Abilene runner up in the Best Historic Small Town contest. There have also been a number of stories written about Abilene.

“We have published a lot of blogs, at lot of videos, and taken on a lot of projects,” she said.

She said an outdoor interactive kiosk is in the works. It is expected to be installed before the end of the year and available 24/7.

“We were able to get some COVID money to help with that,” she said. “That way people can still find information about our community, without face to face interaction that a lot of travelers are a little apprehensive about.”

She said the CVB also received a grant for a new visitors guide.

“That is something we have needed for a while. We will be able to roll that out by next spring,” she said. “I have focused a lot on grants and trying anything we can do for special projects in our community.”

Weeks said outdoor recreation opportunities are being reviewed.

“How do we diversify to protect ourselves should this continue or, heaven forbid, happen again?” Weeks said. “Our attractions are indoor attractions.”

She said blogs and stories about Brown’s Park have gone well on social media.

“We have had a lot of calls from people asking, ‘How do I visit the waterfall?’ People are looking for things to do outside. For Abilene it is an opportunity for Abilene to reevaluate some of our attractions,” Weeks said. “If we are able to open up this market it would attract a different segment of people who are outdoor recreation enthusiasts. That’s new people coming to our town and new people who could potentially spend money in our community.”

Weeks is hoping the expected banner year carries over into 2021.

“The exhibits at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum are still new. And they are wonderful,” she said. “People call and they want to see them. People will return.”

Contact Tim Horan at editor@abilene-rc.com.

Contact Tim Horan at editor@abilene-rc.com.

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