Hard-riding Comanche warriors kept the Rolling Plains of what is now Taylor County dusted clean of settlers until the Civil War ended at Appomattox Courthouse and the Army could re-establish its protective forts; the military continues to be a major stakeholder in the area’s economy, though civic leaders have pushed successfully to diversify ever since Abilene’s Progressive Committee got together in 1888 to woo new businesses to what was then a railroad and agricultural town.
A group of ranchers in the northeast part of the county had struck a deal in 1880 with the Texas & Pacific Railroad to run its track to the north, across their own lands and east of Catclaw Creek, instead of through the established county seat of Buffalo Gap. Hundreds of would-be settlers showed up for the 1881 land auction and bought into the new town of Abilene. The day after New Year’s in 1883, they voted to incorporate, and in October, out-polled Buffalo Gap to become the county seat as well. By 1884 the stricken Buffalo Gap was down to 600 residents, half of 1880’s count (though today it’s a popular arts and tourism center), while Abilene was thriving, numbering 3,194 residents by 1890.
Cattle, crops, people and petroleum products have moved through this transportation hub over the decades. Business leaders pushing for yet more rail added the Abilene and Northern and Abilene and Southern railroads. These days, Abilene is on a main line of the Union Pacific Railroad. Greyhound operates two bus terminals. An American Airlines passenger subsidiary, American Eagle, serves Abilene Regional Airport southeast of the central business district and has its heavy-maintenance base there for all American Eagle aircraft. Interstate Highway 20 loops just north of the city on its east-west path from South Carolina to its junction and terminus with Interstate 10 in West Texas, and north-south U.S. Highways 83 and 84 and 277 kiss in a brief merge just west of town.
The Abilene Industrial Foundation (http://aif.developabilene.com) notes that the city of 118,887 people is the geographic hub of the world’s largest free trade zone: 360 million consumers and a $6 trillion economy. Access is easy to East and West Coasts, industries in the Midwest and the Northeast, and markets in Canada, Mexico and points south.
In April 2013, the Texas Workforce Commission charted the unemployment rate for the Abilene Metropolitan Statistical Area at 4.8 percent, fourth-lowest in the state, which overall had a 6.1 percent unemployment rate. Growth in the region was steady: 2.1 percent in April 2013 over April 2012, 14th-strongest in Texas.
In 2011, Forbes.com ranked Abilene as second among small Texas cities in terms of business opportunities and quality of life and nationally as 48th of 184 cities with populations of 250,000 or less.
Civic leaders have a hundred-plus-year history of reacting quickly and aggressively to economic changes. When the oil boom bottomed out in the 1980s, for example, Abilene became the first city in Texas to impose a half-cent sales tax to foster development.
Health care, education and light manufacturing lead the way in jobs growth as the importance of ranching, farming and the oil industry have declined, though all three still are players. Abilene anchors a 22-county trade area, so retail is solid: The Abilene Industrial Foundation approximates sales totaling $1.8 billion in its most recent yearly figures. Oil and gas production and their support industries were next at $1.02 billion. Manta, the small-business directory site, listed 13,827 Abilene businesses in 2011.
Another power industry, operational since 2005, is the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, owned and operated by a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources. The wind farm’s 421 turbines can generate enough electricity for almost a quarter-million homes.
Farmers raised $24 million worth of cotton, grain, sorghum, wheat, oats, pecans, fruit and truck crops in 2012, the Abilene Industrial Foundation calculated in January 2013, and ranching, stock farms, feed lots and dairying added another $26 million.
Four hospitals serve the region: Abilene Regional Medical Center, Hendrick Health System, Abilene Behavioral Health and Reliant Abilene. Most post employment information on their websites. In addition to the hospitals, the most recent numbers available (2011) show 25 assisted living, retirement centers and nursing homes offering 2,352 beds. There were 280 practicing physicians and 58 dentists.
Higher education in Abilene is especially rich in employment possibilities. There are three private universities: Abilene Christian University (Churches of Christ), Hardin-Simmons University (Baptist) and McMurry University (Methodist). Texas State Technical College is part of the only state-funded technical college system in Texas. American Commercial College offers business-oriented courses. Cisco College, a two-year community college, and Texas Tech University have been collaborating on a nursing program for fall 2013, a response to the state’s severe nursing shortage. In March, officials cut the ribbon for the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Nursing at Abilene (325-676-3822), next door to the university’s School of Pharmacy (325-676-7948), and Hardin-Simmons and McMurry collaborate to operate the Patty Hanks Shelton School of Nursing.
The 5,406 active military and civilian workers and the 15,000 people in the military community at Dyes Air Force Base, home to the 7th Bomb Wing and the mighty B-1B bombers, had a $435 million impact on the Abilene area in Fiscal Year 2011.
Farther afield, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice maintains two sizeable prisons northeast of Abilene, the French Robertson Unit (2,984 inmates, 650 employees) and the Middleton Unit, a transfer facility (2,128 inmates, about 900 employees). Job listings can be accessed through the website www.tdcj.state.tx.us/divisions.