More than one friendly joke about Our Fair City has been cracked during weeks like this, when the 109th annual pilgrimage of sorts takes place to the four-day Summit (or Lectureship, depending on your vintage).
It’s that time again, when large numbers of people arrive from across the nation and around the world, drawn to “Little Jerusalem” or whatever nickname by which you have come to know Abilene Christian University’s hometown.
Truth is, Abilene has come a long way since Summit was held, in part, in a circus-like Big Top tent on the parking lot north of Edwards Hall, in Bennett Gymnasium and other spaces on campus. Moody Coliseum and the Onstead-Packer Biblical Studies Building serve as the major venues for Summit these days. And the city whose population nearly doubled from 1950 (45,570) to 1960 (90,368) has grown to more than 120,000 in 2015.
Anecdotal evidence of the growth is everywhere, from sprawling housing developments north and especially south of the city; to six colleges, universities and technical schools; three nursing schools; two Wal-Marts and a third on the way; restaurants and a small growing army of food trucks; and a hotel building boom that startles even those who live here.
With the recent addition of a pair of new Marriott businesses near campus – Towne Place Suites and Courtyard by Marriott (a second in town) – Abilene now has 3,421 hotel rooms on any given night, and another 100 opening next year. No less than a dozen hotels and motels are at Interstate 20 exits near ACU, including Residence Inn by Mariott, Hampton Inn and Suites, and Holiday Express Inn and Suites, with more on the way.
Travel to Abilene each year generates $469.1 million in direct visitor spending, says Nanci Liles, executive director of the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Abilene hosts 3.5 million visitors a year, with the highest number of guests coming from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Houston and Lubbock. Sixty-eight percent travel here for leisure and 32 percent for business and conventions,” she says.
Summit and the West Texas Fair and Rodeo share top billing this week, but several of the other events generating significant tourism dollars each year include the Western Heritage Classic; Texas High School Rodeo State Finals; Texas 4-H Horse Show; Texas High School Powerlifting; ACU’s Sing Song, Summit and Homecoming; and the Texas Youth Bull Riders World Finals.
Abilene also is a frequent host for state high school regional playoff games in several sports, especially football each November and December.
The Village at Allen Ridge, a planned development announced by ACU this summer, could change the face of one corner of campus in the next couple of years, and add to the city’s bonanza of hotel amenities. Located at the intersections of Ambler Avenue, Interstate 20 and Judge Ely Boulevard, the 95-acre masterplanned, mixed-use development would be a super-regional shopping, leisure, hotel and residential village with an impressive amenity package including a cinema, a 50-acre park with trails, and waterfront outdoor dining on a small lake.
The site was previously the home of ACU’s historic Allen Farm and is just northeast of where the university has plans to begin constructing a new on-campus football stadium in 2016 as part of the $75 million Vision in Action initiative.
ACU chancellor Dr. Royce Money (’64) jokes that one of the major accomplishments of his 19-year presidency was helping lure Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Restaurant to build a franchise on Interstate 20 near campus. Based on the crowds gathered there at mealtimes this week, it would be hard to envision Little Jerusalem’s boomtown today without CB’s wooden rockers on the porch and biscuits in the oven, not far from yet another bright shiny new hotel.