Downtown Abilene development: a retrospective

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ABILENE, Texas (KTAB) – While preparing for the KTAB 40th anniversary celebration, we checked through lots of old tape. On our trip down memory lane, one item from 1993 stood out: a piece on an upcoming overhaul of Abilene’s downtown. Nearly three decades on, some of those plans would come to pass, and some would not. Still others would come about in a slightly different way than expected. As Abilene once again prepares for big changes Downtown, it seemed like a good time to look back on where Abilene was headed back then, and how it compares to the current situation.

Imagining Downtown in the early 90s, Lynn Barnett of the Cultural Affairs Council said, “You’d be looking at a boarded up Grace Museum, and you’d be looking at a right of way that was really depressing. It was really just gravel, and maybe a few scraggly bushes here and there.”

To be fair, Downtown Abilene does still have some boarded up storefronts, although in 2019, that’s a good sign. That’s because these boards signify construction and change rather than decay.

Turning the clock back, though, the boards signified the opposite: “There was just no life. It was just very dead”, said Barnett.

In the summer of 1993, however, things changed. After years of a slow decay, plans were made to bring some major changes to downtown. As reports at the time said, “The proposed plan calls for the further development of Everman Park by the old T&P depot, as well as the extension of North 1st Street all the way to the old traffic circle.”

Everman Park did indeed see further development. Downtown did see an increase in business and activity. That all happened with a lot of work from people like then-Mayor Gary McCaleb.

“It was an incremental thing”, McCaleb remembered. “To some extent, there were plans, but the plans were flexible enough that it became an organic process as well. It gave citizens opportunities, businesses to move in.”

One of those unplanned, organic changes was the influence of the arts on Downtown. The Paramount, The Grace, and the very beginnings of Abilene’s reign as the Storybook Capitol of America all leading to a reason to go Downtown.

“Downtown has to be both a magnet and glue. In other words, the magnet that draws people into downtown and even serves as a sort of destination, tourism spot”, said McCaleb.

If the arts were a magnet, the life they brought was the glue, the thing that keeps people here once they arrive. People like Chamber of Commerce President Doug Peters got stuck in the glue, and are keeping busy working toward the future.

Peters said, “I think that we build on the great work that’s been done by community pioneers like Gary McCaleb and Lynn Barnett of the Chamber’s Abilene Cultural Affairs Council.”

A new Downtown task force calls for more parking Downtown, and still more changes that haven’t even been announced yet. Even if those projects are completed, there’s more work to be done.

“Twenty years from now we’ll be going through the exact same exercise because downtown revitalization is a lot like housework”, explained Peters. “You’re never finished doing it. It’s constant. You think you’re done, you’re really just starting over again. It’s a cycle that we need to continue to pay attention to because it’s a very important first impression for those who come here to decide if they want to go to school at one of our area universities, if they want to invest their company’s future here, or if they want to raise their family here.”

That brings us back to 2019. Some of the old plans didn’t quite pan out. Cypress Street remains a one way street, although the newest plans call for that to change. The Martin Luther King Bridge did not become the “Front Door to Downtown” as called for in 1993. Many other ideas did happen as planned. Trees lining the sidewalks: plant life to match the business life that returned to the area. Open doors and open businesses on every street. The cycle continues, and is likely to do so for years to come.

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