By Mallory Sherwood, Features Editor
Kathey Garner can’t help but smile as the people walk inside in droves. Her cherry-red hair glows from the sun setting outside. She fiddles with her bright pink returns stickers, pulls the shopping carts apart as new customers walk in while cheerfully calling out, “Are you ladies doing all right, this evening?”
Garner works the evening shift as a greeter at the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Southwest Drive. From inside Wal-Mart, she has watched the recent changes happening in Abilene on the south side of town.
Change is slowly creeping toward the north side of town, too.
After a decade of watching the growth take place south of Loop 322, students and residents on the north side of the city soon will see development begin to make a difference in the community by bringing more jobs and adding variety to shopping. But many question whether development alone will be the key to Abilene’s future.
Change in Abilene will affect the job market and economy as new businesses look to hire workers and larger retail stores and nationally known restaurants begin to build.
One change students can see from campus is the construction of the new Wal-Mart Supercenter. The 20,000-square-foot complex, expected to be completed by July, will be larger than the Wal-Mart Supercenter on the south side of town and will create more than 150 jobs.larger than the Wal-Mart Supercenter on the south side of town and will create more than 150 jobs.
Garner, one of seven greeters at Wal-Mart, said she has mixed feelings about the change, but she is glad the new Wal-Mart Supercenter is being built.
“I think the change around here is real good,” Garner said. “It’ll really help the people who have to come a long way to shop.”
Kenneth Musgrave Sr., a major developer in Abilene and chair on the board at Musgrave Enterprises, is funding the project.
In addition to the land surrounding Wal-Mart, Musgrave owns 2,500 acres of Texas prairie past Interstate 20, and he plans to turn the land into a large development area in the next several years.
He said over a period of four to five years, several national restaurants and places like Kohl’s and Home Depot will come.
“It’s a natural process,” Musgrave said. “It won’t happen overnight, but it’ll happen.”
Musgrave said he’d like to see the new Wal-Mart area be as successful as the shopping areas off of the Winters Freeway on the south side of Abilene.
Murphy’s Oil will be built alongside of Wal-Mart, and the Cracker Barrel restaurant has made plans to build in a lot in front of Wal-Mart, too, said Scott Senter, developer and president of Senter Realtors.
Just down the road, more development is happening.
Jeff Armstrong, a member of the City Council’s planning and development committee, said that Joe Allen, owner of the barbecue and steak restaurant Joe Allen’s, has made plans to relocate and attach onto Cahoots, a restaurant on South 11th Street.
On the south side of town, construction also continues.
Less than a month ago, Best Buy had a grand opening at the Mall of Abilene, and Shops at Abilene opened its second strip mall with Oreck vacuums, Best Cuts and Cold Stone Creamery. Stores such as Rue 21, Goody’s, Jason’s Deli and UPS also are in the process of construction in the area.
A Chick-fil-A free-standing restaurant also will begin construction this month on Southwest Drive near the freeway.
“Everyone has a little bit more money to spend with the retail coming in, and it gives us a little bit more diversification,” Senter said. “I don’t think it will stop everyone from wanting to run to Dallas to go shopping, but it does help some.”
Development affects many aspects of town life.
“We hope to get a snowball effect off the Wal-Mart,” Armstrong said. “If there are new homes built and another place to bring people in from out of town, then perhaps more development will come and then more people will build more houses and the cycle will continue.”
Developers help control the town’s vision by bringing in new businesses. Although many said they think Abilene is at a good place in its history, more can happen here.
“Abilene certainly wants more dining establishments like (TGI) Friday’s, Applebee’s, On the Border and those type places,” Senter said. “All of us would still like to have more of those.
“The more retail we can build here,” Senter said, “the more we can create a regional shopping area.”
Development might not be enough, though, to propel Abilene in the future.
Restaurants and retails aren’t everything needed in Abilene; higher-paying jobs are important to help the economy, Armstrong said. They also are a key for the future.
“A lot of people don’t understand that a store and a restaurant is not really an economic development generator,” Armstrong said. “Normally it takes something like a mall or a Wal-Mart, something that creates more activity than just itself to bring money back into the community.”
Armstrong said a new restaurant will add another choice and more construction, but it competes with what is here.
Another key to Abilene’s future lies in its student population.
Abilene grows nearly 10 percent during the nine months of the year when college students live in the city.
“Students come to ACU, Hardin-Simmons and McMurry, and then they have a tendency to go back home or move to Dallas, Atlanta, Denver or wherever,” said Norm Archibald, mayor of Abilene. “We need bright, young college graduates to stay in the community and enhance Abilene.”
Students say more entertainment in Abilene could help its appeal in the future.
Chad Worth, junior management major from Abilene, said he likes the diversity and the way that Abilene is attempting to spread the development. He also said people in Abilene should care that students have opinions about the town, too.
“Growing up, I always heard that the two things keeping Abilene alive was Dyess and the student population,” Worth said.
Worth also said Abilene should offer more entertainment options for students.
“Abilene needs more mainstream bands with concerts that aren’t just local kids battling it out,” Worth said.
Jonathan Wactor, junior political science major from Tuscon, Ariz., agreed.
“Abilene needs more concerts, concerts not held in bars, but in an atmosphere for students and young people,” Wactor said.
Senter said entertainment could help Abilene’s appeal, but right now he thinks Abilene is at a great place. He said people who stop by, whether at Dyess, at a university or just passing through Abilene, will see how much it has changed in the past decade and what potential is here.
“They’ll find out that it is a pretty neat little place and that we are good people,” Senter said. “You can make a good living here. You can have good friends and help your community grow.
“It’s at a real good place in its 125 years of history, and it has an even better future ahead.”