by Megan Dobbs
Picture yourself sitting comfortably on the rooftop of a historic downtown building, the sound of Americana music in the atmosphere with the warm, Texas sunset spilling behind the unwinding city. You’re not in Dallas. You’re not in Austin. You’re in Abilene.
“You hear a lot, ‘Abilene needs something. Downtown needs more events, more concerts, more restaurants.’ We decided we were going to try to do something ourselves,” local entrepreneur Sam Vinson said.
Vinson, Taylor Sturgis, and Jay Hardaway began thinking of ideas for events that would attract more people downtown in order to, as Sturgis puts it, “help continue the momentum that’s starting to occur.”
Thus, the idea for the Open Road concert series was born.
The series concept, as opposed to a single concert, was purposeful. It’s a way to make patronizing downtown businesses habitual for people, Vinson explains.
“The idea was to create a habit…Developing that habit in the minds of not just young professionals but other members of the community, getting them in the habit of saying ‘What am I going to do on a Thursday or Friday or Saturday night? I’m going to go to Downtown Abilene, because I’m sure there’s something going on.'”
Open Road has a philanthropic purpose, too. Proceeds benefit the Community Foundation of Abilene’s Future Fund, of which both Vinson, Sturgis, and Hardaway are members.
The event’s success is more than a story about a hip concert series for a good cause. It’s a story of creative collaboration and a strategic effort by local visionaries to further showcase Abilene’s rich (and, quite frankly, really cool) culture and draw people downtown.
The organizers chose The Grace Museum rooftop to provide the picturesque, urban backdrop they sought. Attendees can grab a bite to eat at a food truck before the show and enjoy cocktail hour, courtesy of The Mill.
They didn’t skimp on talent, either, recruiting nationally-acclaimed artists like Nikki Lane and Paul Cauthen.
“…someone you might see play in Austin and Fort Worth or Dallas who’s coming to Abilene to play a small, unique show that you can’t get anywhere else.” Sturgis said.
Proof the concept worked and is having a positive impact? Let’s look at some of the multiple ways.
Season tickets for the inaugural April-August series sold out within days of the event being announced.
Yes, maximum capacity at the venue is limited, but the capped audience number, coupled with having everyone seated, was intended to give the shows exclusivity.
“It provides the artists the ability to put on a show as opposed to performing a concert at a bar or a field somewhere,” Vinson said.
You won’t find just a single, niche group of Abilene socialites all of the same age at the Open Road concerts.
“This event allows for the intermingling of younger folks and older folks, bringing different sectors of the community together,” Vinson said of the eclectic crowds at the concerts.
Sturgis agreed. “It’s been cool to see people from [north Abilene], from south Abilene, from folks who work downtown, and folks who don’t work downtown. Everyone from the melting pot has come together to experience the event, to experience downtown.”
That brings us to the next point.
The concert series has been a catalyst for downtown consumerism.
Abilene Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Doug Peters touts the core belief that “a rising tide lifts all ships,” and, as Sturgis describes, that’s what events like Open Road do for our city, for downtown.
“So many people say, ‘We went to get Beehive or Vagabond, then came to the show. Or, we bought food at the food truck downstairs and ate on the rooftop.’ Everyone is doing their own thing, but it’s all within downtown, and there’s a real energy to it.”
The artists are also getting a taste of Abilene’s dynamic amenities. Lodging is provided for them at the nationally-renown Sayles Landmark, and they’re served food from Vagabond Pizza before their performances.
“We’ve really tried to put Abilene’s best foot forward through this whole process and tried to get members of the community involved in this series,” Vinson said. The hospitality has left an impression. “It kind of takes them off guard.”
When the series wraps up on August 3, it will have raised nearly $5,000 for Future Fund, an endowment fund of the Community Foundation of Abilene which makes grants to local organizations serving youth and children.
“I know the impact that Future Fund has in the community works both ways — for the giver and the recipient. The members, who are giving, get to feel that benefit and learn a lot about the needs of Abilene; and the people who receive the grants benefit as well,” Vinson says of why Future Fund was chosen to benefit from Open Road.
Sturgis agrees. “This is something we felt fit right into that mission. The puzzle pieces fit.”
A final testament to the positive impact of collaboration is the generosity from those who made the aforementioned results possible to begin with.
“It was also important that we got sponsors to back us, ” Vinson said, “…getting their involvement in an event in downtown Abilene, seeing that they can invest in downtown Abilene and it means something, that something good can come from it, and that’s very important.”
Sturgis says this type of support might not be as easy to come by in cities like Fort Worth, Dallas, or Austin.
“Folks in the community have said, ‘We want young people’s involvement. We want them to stay around. We want downtown to be something, so we’re going to support you in this venture.’ That’s what has been one of the most amazing things from this whole event is that these sponsors have said, ‘Yes. We will actually give you this money to help improve downtown, because we believe in you.'”
That belief in someone’s vision and willingness to support it is something that makes Abilene, well, profoundly Abilene.
The next time you see the sun setting behind the Abilene skyline or hear melodies cascading from the rooftop of The Grace, you might stop to remember what a great community we have and that, when you live in a city as communal as ours, opportunity really is an open road.