Inc. Magazine x Amarillo

Unplugged Amarillo: So Much More Than Meets The Eye

Amarillo is known for its vast open plains and gusty winds, but there's a lot more going on in Amarillo, Texas than one might suspect.

If you're not familiar with Amarillo, Texas you'd probably be surprised to know it's one of the most business-friendly cities in the country. And then you'd nod your head and move along.

But what if you knew that it's when the business day is done, that Amarillo really starts to sparkle...would you be as willing to move right along?

Grooming tomorrow's sports superstars

The heart of the Texas Panhandle might not exactly be where you expect to find a host of budding tennis prodigies. But thanks to the Alex O'Brien Tennis Foundation, Amarillo-area children of all ages and walks of life can dream of becoming sports superstars...and get the training they need to put them on the path to realizing those dreams.

"There was a really good tennis community growing up," says Amarillo native and former tennis pro Alex O'Brien, whose career highlights include having played on the U.S. Davis Cup team five times, 2000 Sydney Olympics, US Open Double Champion in 1999 and being ranked #30 in the world in singles and #1 in the world in 2000.

Now a banker (Amarillo's financial scene is being transformed through his innovative internet-based Bank of Commerce), O'Brien has drawn on that same community, and community spirit, to make tennis accessible and affordable to kids who might otherwise never set foot on a tennis court via his foundation.

In 2015, the Foundation served about 450 participants. It has grown exponentially since then, with its myriad programs bringing a higher level of serves, volleys and educational and leadership opportunities to more than 4,000 children in 2017.

The programs, designed and implemented by an incredible board of Amarillo tennis enthusiasts, include its "Back to the Baseline" Tennis in Rural Schools program; its partnership with Margaret Wills Elementary School that instills leadership lessons in the youngsters; its association with Kids Inc. that brings tennis to children in Kindergarten through 6th grade; and week-long "Tennis in the Park" camps held across the city in conjunction with the City of Amarillo's Parks and Recreation Department, which aims to bring the game to youth in at-risk neighborhoods, as well as an elite tennis academy bringing players together to refine skills and work towards a mastery in tennis.

"If you really get into tennis and start playing it, you learn so much about yourself and about your opponent. We are working to help our area kids grow in life through tennis," says O'Brien.

And in providing this multi-faceted learning-while-playing opportunity for Amarillo's children to grow into well-rounded, productive adults, O'Brien is giving squarely back to the game, and community, that have given so much to him.

You might say it's all in a day's work for him. Or, rather, all after a day's work.

Business by day, community by night

Amarillo's Palace Coffee Company was mindfully and intentionally designed by Patrick and Krystal Burns to be a community-oriented coffee shop with heart.

The couple moved away from Amarillo early in their marriage and were brought back to Panhandle when they decided to start a family.  Upon their return, the realized how special Amarillo truly is and they began dreaming about opening a business.  They first considered the restaurant business (in which they had prior experience), but realized the hours would not be conducive to a balanced family life.

"In my opinion, if you are living just to make money and pay your bills but don't have a passion project to follow, you are just living life going through the motions," Burns says.

The couple also knew they wanted their business to feel like a family; that they wanted to create spaces that encouraged people to come together to talk and share ideas. But what kind of space?

"I've always thought that coffee shops had a great culture to them," says Patrick Burns. "At a restaurant, we'd see regulars maybe once or twice a week. At a coffee shop, you see regulars once or twice a day.

A series of fortuitous events led to the Burns opening their Canyon location (their first) right in the heart of the town. The historic Palace Hotel building was "this really great place where everybody got to meet, and famous people stayed," says Burns.

But their coffee shops weren't the only places the Burns sought out local culture. Like many Amarilloans, the Burns lead a "double life," meaning there's so much more to them than just their day jobs.

Thanks to their oldest son, Kayden, the Burns became involved in the Amarillo theater scene as a family, both on stage and behind the scenes. What began as a little hobby, expanded into a lifelong passion for the entire family Patrick often heads straight from one of his three locations to head to evening rehearsals where he and his two teenage boys perform in multiple productions throughout the year. His wife Krystal, an entrepreneur at heart with a knack for organization and project management, serves as assistant director on a number of productions.

"The arts are paramount to us as a family. We want our boys to love the culture available around us and experience it in a tactile way, not just as outside observers. The theatre has allowed us to do that."

The Burns have friends across the country who live in bigger cities. When they visit their friends, they invariably come away feeling that the Amarillo life style is superior.

"Many of my peers in larger communities have 2-3 jobs to make it work and to just get by," Burns explains. "I don't want that for my family nor do I want that for my employees. I believe it is possible to find a job or a business that allows you to put your family and/or your passions as a priority and not as an afterthought."

The essence of Amarillo

O'Brien and the Burns' are just two shining examples of how Amarillo "unplugged" only adds to the area's quality of life.

Whether it's Amarillo's world class opera and symphony, or its thriving theatrical scene (the musical extravaganza "Texas" is one of the country's longest-running outdoor performances, performed in the heart of Palo Duro Canyon), or the multiple and "awesomely beautiful ranches" as O'Brien puts it, where enthusiasts can get a taste of the frontier life, or the majesty of the canyon itself, Amarillo is a place where life, more than work, takes precedence.

It's a place where community is more than a nine-letter word, and where meaningful connections are made over a cup of coffee every single day.

As plugged in as it is to the 21st century, it's really in its "unplugged" version that Amarillo truly shines. No wonder, then, that visitors rarely stay strangers for long... and more often than not, begin to call it "home."

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