In 2007, the university petitioned to the Abilene City Council to change the name of Ambler Avenue to University Avenue. The stretch from Interstate 20 to Grape Street is a major pipeline for businesses and visitors to the city. The street passing two universities and other retailers and restaurants is an entryway to the city. Because Ambler is a vital structure to Abilene, ACU wanted to rename it to give visitors an idea of what resides on the avenue they are traveling on.
According to a story in the Optimist at the time, Dr. Phil Schubert, then-executive vice president for finance, was optimistic about the plan.
“I think it can get done and would be disappointed if it didn’t,” he had said.
But in August of that year, the university withdrew the request after some Abilene residents and business-owners objected citing concerns for public safety and confusion by having a street named University Avenue.
At the time, Kevin Watson, who served as associate vice president for administrative services and chief operations officer, acknowledged the potential for confusion because a University Boulevard already exists behind Hardin-Simmons.
“What we’ve said is we’re interested to do what’s best for the city as well,” Watson said in 2007.
But while ACU has chosen not to renew the push to rename the street, it is now considering a different move to beautify the entrance to Abilene. And with construction of a new football stadium just blocks from the intersection of Ambler and I-20, these plans have the potential to be far more sweeping than a simple name change.
Paving the way to Abilene
ACU’s campus is one of the first locales to welcome visitors off the interstate. I-20 brings travelers from an unwavering drive to the sight of faded gold fields and 70-year-old houses of the city. From the four-wheelers to the dead skunks by the roadside, Ambler Avenue lacks the attractive features of a college-influenced town.
The City Council of Abilene understands changes have to be made to provide a more receiving entrance for tourists. In addition, ACU owns most of the property – 115 acres to be more accurate – from I-20 to the campus.
In a project to present a more welcoming city and university, ACU wants to beautify the surrounding areas and entrance from the freeway. The coming summers and semesters will be a time of planning and organization for ACU to restructure and revamp the plots. The land on both sides of Ambler Avenue will receive a face-lift as parks, greenery, shops and other facilities will be built for the public and campus in the next few years, university officials say. And for those who love burritos, Chipotle might not be just a dream anymore.
Construction and planning to be focused on campus
Kevin Roberts, chief planning and information officer, said ACU’s plans to develop any restaurants or retail buildings on the plots are still in the planning stages.
“ACU is prioritizing the way construction occurs on campus,” Roberts said. “We categorize [the changes] in three parts. The first one is any construction on campus, the second, around the campus and Lunsford Trail and the third is the surrounding areas.”
For now, the university is focusing on the fundraising, planning and building of the new stadium and departmental structures.
Roberts said the donations to the university are solely focused on the presented plans. More fundraising is needed for further projects.
“The university is definitely interested in developing the land around Ambler,” he said. “There have been discussions about parks, retailers and other possibilities. But for now, there are no set plans.”
Abilene supports development
The City Council is working with ACU to provide benefits for businesses that are established on the plots. The Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, or TIRZ, was created in December 2013 to promote the development and redevelopment of the zone that would not occur through private investment.
The TIRZ ensures future businesses that the city will use the taxes for any public works, payments and improvements on the zone. Individuals are assured that the tax dollars are used to the best advantage for those areas.
This agreement means any type of development on the determined zone will be taxed like other businesses around the city. However, all the tax dollars collected will not go to the city’s funds, but returned into the contracted zone. The money is used to facilitate more development.
Even though the university owns the plots and is able to choose when to develop, taxes will increase if any construction is implemented. As such, TIRZ provides an agreement to the 1,600 acres within the south part of downtown, and along Pine Street and Ambler Avenue corner to provide long-term economic benefits.
“If we develop new businesses in the corridor of Ambler and Pine, any new taxes that come because of the new development, a portion of those dollars will be retained in this area,” said Kelly Young, vice president of the Abilene Christian Investment Management Company.
ACIMCO to provide research data for development
Although ACU is interested in building park land, single residency houses, offices and different collegiate retail buildings, the university remains in the research and vision stage.
“We have three primary goals,” Young said. “No. 1 is to enhance the neighborhoods around campus. Make it more vibrant and collegiate. No. 2 is to take unproductive vacant land and be able to make it financially productive to support the university. No. 3 is to partner with the city of Abilene on the area around I-20 so it is more attractive to visitors.”
Young is working with a team of researchers and consultants from local companies to collect data on development. Before he is able to present a plan to the university, Young has to survey the consumer market, retail developers and financial costs of initiating construction.
The Board of Trustees will consider the proposal, which will be shelved to be revisited in the future if the project is rejected.
“We just need to show the feasibility and financial capabilities of the project to be able to begin on development,” he said.
While the research will flow into this summer, a short-term plan to make the land near I-20 more attractive has begun. Young said the cleared land will mostly be dirt as the university has seeded the area for grass to allow easier development in the area.
“The city of Abilene worked with us to clean up Rainey Creek, removing some old fencing and now we’re cleaning up debris piles and scrub brush,” he said. “Then, if longer-term plans are feasible and we can find funding, we’ll try to put in walk or bike trails, a covered pavilion, make the ponds more visible and accessible, and possibly have an outdoor sculpture in the park plans.”