Main and Mulberry Podcast – Kelly Thompson, Abilene TX CVB

Abilene, TX is known as the Storybook Capital of America, and there are plenty of stories to tell. The area has a rich history dating back to the Civil War and earlier. More recently, a love for the arts has spurred Abilene’s economic growth. The downtown is thriving, and many businesses now call Abilene home. Kelly Thompson, of Abilene’s CVB, is here to give us a picture of life in this historic community. Come learn about Abilene’s “Cowboys, Character, and Culture” on this episode of Main and Mulberry.

Transcript:

Anna Bell:
Hello and welcome to another episode of Main and Mulberry. We’re so excited to have you with us today. I’m your host, Anna Bell, and we have with us Kelly Thompson, the communications director for the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau in Abilene, Texas. Kelly, thank you so much for making the time to be with us today.

Kelly Thompson:
Thanks for having me.

Anna Bell:
Yeah, absolutely. We’re all looking forward to learning a little bit about Abilene, so maybe I can help us kick things off by telling us where you’re located in Texas for those of us who have not yet had the opportunity to visit.

Kelly Thompson:
So we’re about two hours west of Fort Worth. If you’re on a road trip from Tennessee, you may be on what, 40, then 30, then 20. So even if we aren’t your destination, you may pass through. And we’re a great place to stop. We’re a city of about 120,000. We serve a huge regional area, but we’re a small town with big city amenities, it… It’s real easy to get around.

Kelly Thompson:
All of our attractions, you can spend an hour at the zoo or you can spend four hours depending on… It’s easy, it’s easy to do the kind of things here…

Anna Bell:
Oh, I love that. I love hearing kinda the big city, you’re growing, you’ve got a lot going on, but you still are hanging on to that small town charm. That’s really awesome. That helps paint the picture for us.

Kelly Thompson:
You find real Texas here. We like to say cowboys, characters and culture because we also are the storybook capital of American A, and that’s based on public sculpture that we have popping up through our downtown.

Anna Bell:
That is so interesting accolade. You’ve gotta tell us a little bit more about being the story capital, story book capital of America.

Kelly Thompson:
Yeah. Isn’t that neat? So in Abilene, we have this place called the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, where they show the original artwork from story books, it’s something you enjoy all the time, but maybe you don’t think about what goes into the illustrations when you’re looking at a book. So this gallery actually curates shows that travel throughout the whole world, and so it sprang from that, and every year in June, we have the Children’s Art and Literacy Festival, where they celebrate an artist this year. Well, in 2021, in June, it will be Lauren Long, which parents recognized him from a little tractor. Yes, so Lauren Long will come and be the parade Marshal, and the whole downtown just comes alive, and each year they unveil a new sculpture based on who the honoree is at the festival, and so now we have a couple of dozen sculptures all downtown and people download an app and go on a scavenger hunt, just…

Anna Bell:
It sounds like such an experience, whether you’re an older person that’s nostalgic for you, talking about these characters or a young child really getting the experience.

Kelly Thompson:
Right. And it started actually, see the sculpture that’s in the corner, Childhood’s Greatest Adventure? That’s from a book by William Joyce, “Santa Calls” that was set in Abilene. And so the town just really embraced a… We’re rich in culture anyway, but we just embrace that and each year it’s just gotten more and more, so that we have sculptures throughout the whole downtown, and it’s really fun.

Anna Bell:
Is it local artists that make the sculptures?

Kelly Thompson:
Yes, yes, for the most part. There’s a artist Steve Neves at Hardin-Simmons University. We have three universities in Abilene. And he has made a lot of them.

Anna Bell:
Wow, that is so neat. Talk about a good way to kick off this conversation about Abilene.

Kelly Thompson:
People love to photograph themselves. You know in the Instagram era, it’s picture perfect.

Anna Bell:
Oh, absolutely, it sounds like it. Oh, how fun. And a good way to walk around town and see and spot who all you can find, all the storybook characters.

Kelly Thompson:
And let me tell you about our town’s development. I moved to Abilene in ’93, and the downtown was derelict really, and they have opened galleries, museums, they restored the Paramount Theater, and it’s the arts that brought the businesses, and now with young entrepreneurship, the downtown is alive. We have residential living downtown, lots of craft breweries and dining, and it all started with the arts. It’s a real success story in downtown development.

Anna Bell:
That’s so wonderful to hear, Kelly. I would love for you to be our virtual tour guide, if you will, to take this on a little journey of exciting spots that we can visit when we come to see you in Abilene, and maybe we should start with just first thing in the morning, where should we go for breakfast?

Kelly Thompson:
Where should you go for breakfast? Oh my goodness. Well, you should go to the Dixie Pig, which is the oldest dinner in town.

Anna Bell:
Oh fun.

Kelly Thompson:
And that’s where you can find some good comfort food like biscuits and gray and just old time good…

Anna Bell:
Good Southern food.

Kelly Thompson:
Right, but then there’s actually a bakery and coffee shops downtown, several to choose from, and I would hate to tell you to pick just one. Try ’em all.

Anna Bell:
Start there. Tell us a little about downtown though.

Kelly Thompson:
Sure. So in the Cultural District where our offices are in, Abilene was founded in 1881 as a railroad community, and so we’re along the railroad tracks. Our offices the Convention and Visitors Bureau are in a beautifully restored railroad depot. So you see a lot of those. Next to us is another railroad depot that houses one of the oldest businesses in town, Candies by Vletas, where you can go in and get chocolate of any… They make everything that you could even want. Oh, it’s wonderful.

Anna Bell:
I would get in trouble there, Kelly.

Kelly Thompson:
Yes, yes. It’s a must stop. So you Candies by Vletas, across the street is the National Center for Children Illustrated Literature that I mentioned earlier. Grace Museum.

Anna Bell:
I’m so glad you said The Grace Museum. Let’s talk about it for a minute.

Kelly Thompson:
Yes, it’s an iconic building that’s right across from the railroad depot. At one time it was a hotel that served people traveling on the railroad, but now it’s a four-story museum with History, Art and a children’s floor, and they’ve got the greatest curator, Judy Deaton who they bring in some really terrific shows, and they try to celebrate Texas artists and sometimes in national artists, but it’s a great place to just peruse. Now, our flagship attraction is Frontier Texas.

Anna Bell:
Oh yes.

Kelly Thompson:
That’s actually… It’s a great place to start to learn the history of this region. So what it is one of the only museums in the world that uses life-sized holographic images to tell you first-hand stories. So there’s an image of a Comanche Chief who tells you what it was like for him when the white people started populating this area, and the historians who helped create this museum used his own words from his writing, so you’re hearing first-hand stories from spirit guides.

Anna Bell:
What an attraction. What an experience to have.

Kelly Thompson:
It’s a great, sure, and if you’re on a road trip, we’re on the Texas Forts Trail, which is when this area was first settled and the Comanche were here, the US Army started little forts, and so Frontier Texas, the architecture kind of echoes the forts that are in this area, and it has some testimony from the military men and the pioneer women and gamblers, and you know Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, all those guys through this region before they settled in Tombstone.

Anna Bell:
Wow. I’m glad you’re talking about that ’cause I did know that there’s some real military history in Abilene, right?

Kelly Thompson:
Absolutely, yes. A very rich military history, starting with Fort Phantom, which was founded before the Civil War. You know most of these forts were kind of abandoned after the Civil War, so… Yes, and we’ve got Dyess Airforce Base here, home with the B1.

Anna Bell:
That’s right. Oh wow.

Kelly Thompson:
And so we’re very proud of that. We also have a military museum called the 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum, where World War II artifacts are housed because during WWII, this area had a huge training base, Barkley, Camp Barkley, that trained hundreds of thousands of men who went to WWII. This tank division chose Abilene as the site for their archives, their stories, their artifacts that they brought back, and so that’s another four-story museum that’s downtown and blows people away really, especially because we’re losing those veterans. You know they used to back and all meet at the facility and have reunions but now, there’s fewer and a fewer of them, but their stories are saved, and so people go through and tour those artifacts as well. Now all of that’s downtown.

Anna Bell:
I love it, I love it. You mentioned something earlier too, that I’ve been told to ask the, Paramount Theater. Can you tell us a little about it?

Kelly Thompson:
Gorgeous. It’s the, it’s everybody’s favorite place to be. It’s that Spanish Rococo style, classic…

Anna Bell:
Yeah, Spanish missionary Texas.

Kelly Thompson:
Yes, yes, and it’s got stars that twinkle on the ceiling and another model for development for towns, our theater, it was the inspiration. When it was restored, everybody was inspired to bring up the whole downtown, and so what other theaters find admirable about ours is business model where it’s live shows, movies, contemporary movies, classic movies and rentals. You know you have the Opera Association rents, puts on a show every year. Our Nutcracker at Christmas…

Anna Bell:
Oh I bet that’s magical.

Kelly Thompson:
Our theatre is gorgeous. Yeah, it’s my children’s favorite, just to go every year and see that classic ballet in that setting really starts the season.

Anna Bell:
I bet it’s something special. Speaking of something pecial, you said this earlier too, the Abilene Zoo. I’ve heard you got a really spectacular zoo.

Kelly Thompson:
We do! I actually worked at the zoo before I worked at the Convention Bureau.

Anna Bell:
Look at you Ms. Kelly.

Kelly Thompson:
Place in my heart, it’s a very walkable pretty zoo. I mean the gardens, there’s a thousand animals of 250 different species, but if you’re on a road trip, we used to find that there were people who would just stop and stretch their legs at the zoo because it’s not an all-day commitment like the Fort Worth Zoo or the Dallas Zoo… Or we actually have a lot of people who come over from the Dallas-Fort Worth area because their children are really young, and they want to do a zoo that just takes less amount of time and everybody’s not having a heat stroke and a melt-down by the time it’s over.

Anna Bell:
And that, that Texas heat, that’s serious.

Kelly Thompson:
Yeah, and it’s affordable, and we don’t charge for parking, and it’s right there on a lake, with, in a park. It’s a real nice place to stop and of course, food.

Anna Bell:
Yes, yeah.

Kelly Thompson:
A little the train that goes through and can give you a tour, and it’s a great place to stop and start your legs and put it on your to-do list when you come to town.

Anna Bell:
So if we kind of a wrapping up our day, you know, we start with food and we got in with some food. Is they’re a good dinner spot that you might…

Kelly Thompson:
I’m telling tell you what we do better than everybody else.

Anna Bell:
I love it.

Kelly Thompson:
Ribeyes! This is beef country, and that really surprised me when I move to Abilene, but they do steaks here better than anybody, and you’ve got lots of options. You know in town you have Lytle Land and Cattle Company. There’s a Beehive Saloon that’s downtown. That’s actually… The Beehive is the saloon that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday hung out at in Albany, which is nearby, and so the restaurant owners have opened a downtown location. Now the one that everybody has heard of is Perini Ranch Steakhouse. He is world famous, Tom Perini.

Anna Bell:
Wow.

Kelly Thompson:
And so that’s a real destination restaurant in Buffalo Gap, which is just five miles… well, eight miles south of town, but…

Anna Bell:
Okay. Oh that’s awesome. And we would be remiss to come and visit and not, you know, get our own cowboy hat. Isn’t that the souvenir you’ve got…

Kelly Thompson:
Exactly. So sure, we have those western artisans who have saved the craft, you know they’re still doing things the way that they’ve always been done. We have boot makers and hat makers, right downtown, we have 5D Hats and Leather, where you can go in and get yourself a custom cowboy hat, made and Damon Alvis will tell you stories and you get kind of a… You get authentic Texas experience with him, for sure.

Anna Bell:
Got to say that’s about as authentic as it gets…

Kelly Thompson:
Oh my goodness, people just clap listening to him. I’ve taken journalist in there and they’re always, he’s always their favorite stop. Yeah, and then Leddy Boots is nearby, and those guys are the people who make boots for George Bush when he was governor. If you want to get a real fancy pair of boots and have a couple of thousand dollars to spend…

Anna Bell:
That’s right, that’s where you need to go…

Kelly Thompson:
Yes, Leddy.

Anna Bell:
You know what else I love, I love that your hashtag is hashtag abilenestrong right now. This has been an interesting year when it comes to marketing and tourism, encouraging visitors to come and experience your area safely, and looking back on the last few months, Kelly, from a Communications Director viewpoint, what has been maybe one of your biggest takeaways?

Kelly Thompson:
I think Abilene… The data shows us people feel safer in smaller communities, and this is a great place to do it, just to visit because even at reduced capacity right now, our museums and zoo are not crowded. It’s low hassle, it’s easy to get around, everyone’s wearing masks, everyone is implemented safety protocols, but our building capacities are not at all maxing out. You can spread out in…

Anna Bell:
Room to stretch your legs.

Kelly Thompson:
I like to say we have room to roam here, wide open spaces in West Texas… Yeah, it’s safe, easy. We’re known for our hospitality because we’re just… We’re just glad to show it off to everyone.

Anna Bell:
Speaking of hospitality, I am curious about upcoming events and with the global pandemic and all that it’s impacted for events throughout the country and this year. You know were most of your events cancelled or postponed, and what’s the last quarter look like for you guys?

Kelly Thompson:
So our hotels are doing all right. Yes, you’re right that our CVB is funded by hotel tax, but… And things are much lower. Yes, it’s true. And many events have been cancelled, but they’ve started to come back online. We recently had the West Texas Fair and Rodeo, and I think we were the only place in Texas to have it. It was a blessing for all of the livestock show participants, you had young people all over the state who had been raising animals, they hadn’t been able to show, and so, all of those kids, we had almost twice as many entries this year, and they all came to town. n.

Anna Bell:
Wow.

Kelly Thompson:
Our expo center is a great place for equestrian events and just went through a 55 million face lift and renovation, so those kids got to show their animals and social distance and do it safely…

Anna Bell:
A blue ribbon all the way around, huh.

Kelly Thompson:
Right. So at Christmas, as we look ahead, yes, we have… There’s a new thing called Winter Light Fest, which is just a half mile of walking through Christmas lights, outdoors.

Anna Bell:
Magical.

Kelly Thompson:
I think that is something that, 42,000 people came to that last year, and I imagine this year, and it’s just right off of I-20, it will get just as much participation because outside is somewhere people feel safe.

Anna Bell:
I bet you’re right. I know everybody’s gonna be looking forward to Christmas and the events to come. I think this year especially.

Kelly Thompson:
And our downtown will be gorgeous, and we’re just ready to say goodbye to 2020 and just really celebrate this year.

Anna Bell:
Someone told me not too long ago they were Zoomed out, and I thought that was so great, that is… We are Zoomed out, aren’t we.

Kelly Thompson:
Sure, but you and I might not have talked.

Anna Bell:
That’s so true. We gotta be thankful for what we have, and that is true. I know, I’m thankful for this experience and you sharing all the wonderful things with us, Kelly, about Abilene, and as we wrap up things, can you tell us where can our listeners go to learn more information on really how to map out their upcoming trip to Abilene Texas?

Kelly Thompson:
Sure. They need to go to abilenevisitors.com. They can follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, under Visit Abilene, and we have itineraries. If you’re interested in military heritage, there’s a military heritage itinerary. We’ve got our top 10 things to do, which you and I have in covered that list, and also outdoors things. There’s a state park, Abilene State Park that’s really lush and gorgeous, and you know everybody’s loving the national parks and state parks right now.

Anna Bell:
Being outside. That’s right, you’re exactly right. Well, Kelly, we sincerely appreciate your time and your insight today and getting us all excited about planning our next trip to Abilene.

Kelly Thompson:
Come see us! Come see us.

Anna Bell:
All right, guys, I hope you enjoyed this episode of Main and Mulberry. Until next time, I’m Anna Bell.

 

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