Is Waco ready for changes at Baylor? – University developments will have major economic effects

Stadium Rendering_007 FTWBy Rebecca Fiedler
and Josh Day

On the night of July 19, 2012, when Baylor’s regents approved construction for the $250 million Baylor Stadium, all the stars were aligned.

On May 11, 2012, Baylor approved a new strategic vision “Pro Futuris,” a vision that, in broad strokes, called for growth. The 2011-2012 sports season, what called “one of the greatest combined athletic seasons in NCAA history,” brought Baylor into the national spotlight.

With a new president, new vision and a new public identity, Baylor had changed and one of Pro Futuris’ new goals to “form stronger, more strategic community partnerships to improve the quality of life for Central Texans” spoke volumes: It was time for Waco to change and grow alongside Baylor.

Parts of the Waco community have mixed views, however, on whether the $250 million dollar stadium will be the economic boon that its supporters hope for.

Dr. Michael Parrish, professor of history, spoke about Waco recovering from historic economic issues.

He said the Great Depression was the back-breaker for the growth of a promising downtown Waco. After that, the famous tornado of 1953 further injured the vibrancy of downtown, Parrish said, and the flight of the middle class to the surrounding suburban areas was the death-blow.

Today, Waco’s major industries include L-3 Integrated Systems’ manufacturing, Providence Health Center and Baylor.

Baylor is very important to the Waco economy, Parrish added. But is it enough to support Waco’s job market?

“The problem is attracting major businesses from the outside and providing high-paying jobs,” Parrish said. “Too many of the businesses in Waco and McLennan County are manufacturing and processing operations that don’t necessarily provide high-paying jobs. The average annual per capita income has risen by about 20 percent over the last 15 years, from about $29,000 to about $34,000, but that’s still well below the state and national averages.”

According to the new stadium’s official website, Baylor is hopeful for the stadium to allieviate that problem.

“Baylor Stadium will be a catalyst for economic development along the Brazos River and will continue progress underway throughout downtown Waco,” said a statement on the Baylor Stadium’s website. “The stadium will be the largest project in Central Texas history and has the potential to transform the city.”

In an email statement to the Lariat, Dr. Bonny Cain, superintendent of Waco ISD, expressed the same outlook on how the new stadium might affect the surrounding community.

“Baylor University is such a blessing to our community,” Cain said. “The new bear stadium will have an incredibly positive effect on our quality of life and on the local businesses. Each game day will attract people from throughout the state and country who will fill up our hotels, shop, eat at restaurants and buy gas. The flurry of game weekends will cause an uplifting energy that only good college towns can generate.”

Dale Caffey, Waco ISD director of communications, said in the same email statement that the new stadium would enhance Waco’s image as a progressive and growing city.

“The stadium will provide a perfect bookend to the northern entry of Waco,” Caffey said. “Soon, the first thing travelers from the north will see is a picturesque riverside college football venue. From the south, the first thing travelers already see is a spectacular hospital to the left and a majestic, state-of-the-art University High School to the right. When it comes to attracting new residents, first impressions mean a lot.”

Parrish said he shares the enthusiasm of the Baylor and Waco officials for the stadium, but also pointed out that projects with the same goal of economic development have been proposed before.

In the 1960s, ’70s and especially ’80s, numerous efforts, reports, studies and consultations came from city leaders, business leaders and investors, Parrish said.

The idea was to take advantage of the potential of the Bosque and Brazos River Corridor, which runs straight through the downtown.

“But the results of all of those efforts have been very mixed and very limited, and in the opinions of many, very disappointing,” Parrish said.

Despite this, Parrish said he hopes the new Baylor Stadium will create an economic chain reaction.

“As far as I can tell, the stadium can’t hurt and indeed should help significantly,” Parrish said. “Is it the cure-all? I have no idea. I certainly hope so.”

According to Clint Peters, the director of the city of Waco planning services, Baylor has taken the initiative with Baylor Stadium.

“With the construction of the stadium, it’s Baylor that’s had to work out the costs of planning. They have to engineer the site, they have to work with the core engineers, and it’s been a lot of work,” Peters said.

Peters said the project involved not only Waco and Baylor but also the Texas Department of Transportation, TXU Energy and private contractors.

“It’s a huge project, with a lot of partnerships and coordination in a short time period,” Peters said.

For Waco, he said, the costs of construction didn’t come from raised taxes, but from Tax Increment Financing. For Waco, Tax Increment Financing is an accumulation of money from increasing property taxes in specific TIF zones.

“The TIF is not an extra tax,” Peters said. “It’s money that has been funneled off for a long period of time for a specific area of land. Any money that is made from raising the value of that area gets set aside, and is used to encourage and to incentivize more development.”

Not everyone feels fully confident in what the stadium will do. Some who reside near the stadium site express concerns and doubts about how the stadium will affect the surrounding community.

“This is the edge of what you would consider a bad neighborhood, once they get to those apartments down there,” said Anthony Newman, a resident of a neighborhood near the site of the new stadium. “This area hasn’t been concerned about that for a while, so I don’t see them putting too much of an onus on parking and things of that nature.”

Newman also said he does not believe that the new stadium will improve the economic prospects for locals.

“They’re not going to hire people from this area to go work at that stadium,” Newman said. “I don’t believe that, either. I believe it’ll be more student jobs and things of that nature, but as far as local? No.”

In a Waco Tribune-Herald article on Dec. 12, 2012, it was reported that a meeting was held by residents of Olive Heights Association, who live near the site of the new stadium.

Residents voiced concerns, saying that they felt Baylor had not been communicative enough with them about its plans for the area around the stadium.

The article also stated that McLennan County Commissioner Lester Gibson said that Wells Fargo bought 156 lots in the Olive Heights area.

Gibson later found that the properties were bought for Baylor, the article added.

Karl McNair, director of real estate services for Baylor, confirmed to the Waco Tribune-Herald lots purchased through Wells Fargo, but McNair said Baylor had not yet drawn up a plan for how it will use the properties.

According to McNair and Peters, Baylor has hired consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, who had officials present at the meeting of the Olive Heights group, to prepare a traffic-management plan for the area.

Peters said the plan for areas surrounding the stadium could change and are not finalized.

“There haven’t been any decisions made, especially with things that have to do with Olive Heights,” Peters said. “Baylor says it has no plans for using the properties for parking, but we are still in the planning phase. We have a democratic process with public hearings. Baylor is still within its rights to present a different plan.”