Head To The Texas Plains To Witness Abilene’s Renaissance

A transformation is underway in the Storybook Capital, with a contingent of Millennial entrepreneurs, new businesses and renovation of historic sites.

By Marika FlattJanuary 30, 2020 1:27 pm,

There’s been a renaissance of sorts in Abilene lately. Galleries, shops, restaurants and watering holes are bustling, and new construction bangs and hums throughout the city center, bringing craft breweries, apartments, a distillery, lofts and more good places to eat. Plus, sculptures and vibrant murals mix with historic public art to celebrate the city’s Western heritage and vibrant arts scene.

The rebirth of downtown Abilene started with a beautiful old theater, a generous and anonymous donor and strategic city planning. The result is a charming, mixed-use district that has attracted new life, industry and visitors to the city.

In 1987, the glamorous Paramount Theatre launched a restoration project. Built in 1930, the theater’s auditorium is meant to look like a Spanish/Moorish courtyard at night. Locals and visitors enjoy a busy slate of events there, including movies, local theater productions, opera, concerts, ballet and traveling productions.

Other restoration projects followed. The cornerstone of Abilene’s cultural district is the Grace Museum. Once a hotel for railroad travelers, the four-story building now serves as an art, history and children’s museum.

Another reason for optimism about Abilene’s future is the construction of a full-service convention hotel. A 206-room DoubleTree hotel adjacent to the city’s convention center and cultural district is set to open at the end of 2021. The hotel is a homecoming for the Hilton brand; just a few blocks away is where the brand was born. That’s right – in the 1920s, a young hotelier named Conrad Hilton opened the 260-room Hilton Hotel, the second of what he said at the time were three of Texas’ finest moderately priced hotels. Today, the building houses a stunning ballroom and apartments.

Last year, personal finance website smartasset.com named Abilene as the 14th most popular city for Millennials. With the newcomers came an entrepreneurial spirit. The local chamber of commerce operates a dynamic group of young professionals that’s 570-members strong. And an energetic and collaborative Downtown Association plans holiday decorating events, shopping days and festivals.

Just past the site of a real, Old West shootout, there’s Frontier Texas! Museum and Visitors Center. It gives an overview of the region’s previous inhabitants. The architecture is reminiscent of the ruins of U.S. Army forts that dot the Texas plains, but the inside is high-tech. Life-sized holograms tell tales about Texas’ past in the words of those who experienced it, like a Comanche chief, a buffalo hunter, a soldier and a frontier wife. The finale is a theater-in-the-round experience that simulates life on the plains.

Other downtown attractions include the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, a place where adults and children can celebrate the original artwork produced for their favorite storybooks. The Children’s Art and Literacy Festival each June celebrates Abilene’s reputation as the Storybook Capital of America. It’s a designation reflected in the city’s many whimsical public sculptures, including those of characters from “The Cat in the Hat,” “The Lorax,” and “Stuart Little.” Kids can download an app to hunt for the statues.

The historic properties north of the railroad tracks, as well as the blossoming SoDA District just south, house myriad drinking and dining options. These include woodfired pizza, upscale comfort food, pubs, delis, cocktails and wine among the silos of an old mill.

The city also was recently certified by the Texas Music Office as a “Music Friendly” community, and is nurturing a lively scene for performing artists.