Abilene’s early days were filled with cattle cars as it served as a “cow town” on the 1800s cattle trail. Since then, Abilene has grown far beyond its humble roots while maintaining a connection to its farming foundation. Now, as a small town of the 21st century, Abilene seeks to increase its economic footprint.
Dennis Weese, community relations and product development director for the east region of Eagle Communications, produces a bi-weekly local show, “Our Town,” to highlight Abilene’s economic development.
“As far as economic development in Abilene, I think it is tremendously critical that Abilene as a community undertake the thought process of what it takes to prosper,” Weese said. “One of the things any business or community has to understand about prosperity: it has to know what its brand is and then what prospers that brand.”
As the primary writer of Abilene’s three-year Economic Development Plan, City Manager David Dillner weighed in on the topic of branding.
“I think the long and short of it is, brand, in essence, is defining what a community is and what a community wants to sell itself as,” Dillner said. “To a large degree, I would argue that Abilene has a brand that’s pretty established. Everyone knows Abilene as Eisenhower’s hometown and we’ve got a lot of other things going on as well. I think it’s just a matter of packaging that and then putting it out there.”
The first of the four main strategies of the plan is to “retain existing businesses and promote organic business growth within the community.
“I think it’s going pretty well right now,” Dillner said. “We’re seeing things that are positive movements that are moving things forward so there’s a lot of things that are going on that, if you actually start counting up, it definitely looks as if there are things moving within our local economy.”
Though Dillner said he is pleased by the current pace of growth, he said he would especially like to see more in the downtown district.
“We have some momentum on a downtown revitalization plan that we’ve started to put out there for discussion and we’ll continue to have discussion but generally, the people that I’ve spoken with are very supportive of that effort,” Dillner said. “We’re going to be pursuing that and trying to get some of those steps implemented.”
Weese said he wants to foster partnerships between downtown businesses.
“We could certainly benefit from people extending their businesses in Abilene to include downtown Abilene,” Weese said. “I don’t think that we probably understand as well as we could the value of our downtown real estate but it may be different use than we currently perceive it at. But I think people who are interested are trying to further the discussion. I think there’s some real interest in trying to pull these different groups together and understand business drives businesses. And I think that’s a very positive thing for Abilene.”
In addition to the downtown district, the 5-Star Museum District serves as another tourism hub. While some of Abilene’s events take place annually, the 5-Star Museum District regularly hosts events for the enjoyment of citizens and tourists alike. From visiting speakers at the Eisenhower Presidential Library to train rides on the Smoky Valley Railroad, there is almost always something happening in Abilene’s museum district.
Mary Jane Oard, manager of Smoky Valley Railroad, one of the five “stars” of the district, said the train gives rides to 11,500 visitors each year.
“We’re very definitely a plus (to Abilene’s economy) because we’re all within walking distance of each other and we try to promote each other,” Oard said. “Without most of us, Abilene’s economy would kind of go downhill.”
Dillner said he wants to use tourism not only as an end unto itself but also as a springboard to business growth and residential development.
“Tourism is obviously an important piece of our economy,” Dillner said. “We draw visitors in but what we started looking at more holistically is, ‘How do we use tourism as economic development opportunity? If you’re coming to town to visit, how can we convince you to come to town to live?’ So really, the tourism aspect is good all unto itself but we’re taking that one step further and really asking, ‘How do we use tourism as a platform to convince you that Abilene’s a great place for you to live and grow your family and operate your business?’”
As a response to these questions, Dillner and his team are developing a website to market Abilene as a community not only to visit but also to move into and start or relocate a business. Dillner used the following example to illustrate how someone might stumble upon the website:
“Somebody may be interested in Abilene because they want to see the greyhound museum,” Dillner said. “They’ll get on Google, they’ll type in ‘Greyhound Museum, Abilene’ and what we’re envisioning is that the first thing that comes up is not the city’s website. It’s not even the greyhound museum’s website. It’s discoverabilene.com.”
Dillner said the website is in its preliminary stages. He expects it to become “semi-functional” by the end of November.
As a conclusion to the greyhound museum example, Dillner said the person would find a link to the greyhound museum’s website within discoverabilene.com, but he or she would also find many other tourism opportunities, as well as more permanent options.
“That’s what the website is going to be geared to: focusing on the tourism side of it, focusing on the quality of life side of it and really creating a one-stop-shop for all things Abilene and Dickinson County so we can really get you focused on what we have to offer,” Dillner said. “That is one of our primary strategies at this point: developing that and tying that into our downtown revitalization plan and working that into a couple other things as well. So I think we’re getting some thing’s that’ll generate some momentum to hopefully get things really moving.”