Reagan Hales vividly recalls the day she learned she'd be moving back to Amarillo, a city she had fought tooth and nail to leave with no intention of ever coming back.
"I sat down in our kitchen and cried. I did not want to come back here. Since I was 16, I was determined I was going to live in New York, I was going to conquer the world, and do all these things--and here I was, however many years later, headed back to my hometown."
Fast-forward to today: Hales is now vice president for strategic marketing and communications at the Amarillo Economic Development Corporation (AEDC).
She says it took her about three and a half years from the time she moved back to finally begin to appreciate the quiet beauty of her hometown and its unique and deep community ties, and credits her role at the AEDC for that change in perspective.
"I think I inherently love to see the good in people. I love to encourage people and push them and coach them and help them see victory. To see and meet all these people, and to know their potential and know the things that they offer--I just wanted to be their biggest cheerleader."
Hales is speaking of the entrepreneurs, business owners, and community leaders her job brings her into regular contact with. Many of them, with great success stories to tell, join Hales at national conferences, where their remarkable stories are showcased. AEDC's partnership with the WT Enterprise Center has given her the opportunity to deliver Amarillo's message to a far broader and more diverse audience.
"For the first time, I was able to go to a conference where I could show off the people I live around. I could say, 'Yeah, you're impressive, but have you met my friend Alejandro? He's 24 and created this incredible company--and he's from Amarillo.'"
Hales's admiration for Amarillo's community-infused DNA powered by small-town smarts is evident. "There are some people who may hang their heads because they're in a small town. But that's nothing to be ashamed of. The way we live, our values, our community--it's a beautiful thing."
Like Hales, Jason Herrick of Pantera had absolutely no intention, when growing up in Amarillo, of going into the oil and gas business as his father had (Herrick Sr. founded Pantera as a small drilling outfit in 1982), or of staying close to home.
"I was actually in industrial engineering at Texas A&M, but the hot thing at the time, in the mid-'90s, was IT consulting. The big six accounting firms all had consulting divisions at the time that were busy and growing, and it was a lot of fun to work in that industry."
Embracing the consulting world, Herrick traveled the globe, eventually settling in the Netherlands. Returning to Amarillo was furthest from his mind, as it was from that of his then-fiancée (now wife), at the time in her fourth year of pediatric residency in Dallas.
But then his father had a heart attack. He recovered, but the inevitable soul-searching followed, leading him to ask his son if he would ever consider returning to Amarillo to run Pantera.
"We talked about it and I said, 'Yeah, this is probably the right answer.' So I moved from Amsterdam to Amarillo and asked my fiancée, 'Hey, what do you think about Amarillo?'"
Her response was predictable. "She said, 'What are you talking about? This was not the plan.'"
The couple managed their long-distance relationship--he in Amarillo, she in Dallas--until she finished her residency and moved to Amarillo, where she now directs the Pediatric Residency Program at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center.
Since then, Pantera has grown into a drilling machine (no pun intended), operating approximately 1,600 wells in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. And now the Herricks cannot imagine living anywhere else.
"Coming back was a culture shock, for sure," recalls Herrick. "I'm one of those people who loves the bustle. It excites me no end to walk through the streets of downtown New York, or Dallas, where you can just feel the energy. I love that feeling."
Moving to a town with a slower pace requires you to strategically redirect that energy, he says. "What's been fun about it for me is that you're really picking and choosing [where to direct that energy]."
So what about Amarillo has caused Hales, Herrick, and countless others to embrace it a second time around?
It's the multifaceted and close-knit community, where business, technology, and education work hand-in-hand to collectively make a difference--and which, in turn, leads to extremely personal connections.
"We have a very strong family culture in Amarillo," says Herrick, "and I think that permeates the ownerships within businesses, and within financial institutions. So they run on a really relational basis.
"I think a lot of people give that lip service [in other cities]. I've seen it firsthand now, many times now, in my 15 years of doing business here in Amarillo. It just makes a huge difference."
Hales agrees, and points out that the odds of success in a smaller community are far better than in a big one, particularly when everyone is rooting for you.
"When the proverbial s**t hits the fan, I can call people who are part of this partnership and say, 'My mother is in the hospital and I have my kids and I need someone to help,' and they all send me their cellphone numbers.
"Just to know that if something happens, I can raise a white flag and someone will see it--that's nice to know."
At the end of the day, it's people who make the difference between a nice place to work and live and a great place to work and live.
That's the Amarillo difference.