By Katie Grovatt, Reporter
Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce abruptly dismissed longtime urban development director Chris McGowan two weeks ago. Many Wacoans are confused and suspicious of this sudden decision.
McGowan was informed of the chamber’s decision on Sept. 25. Waco leaders and community members agree that the Chamber’s motives are not clear.
Chisolm Crossing and Downtown Farmer’s Market board member Wendy Gragg said she was outraged at the chamber’s decision. Gragg, who runs the downtown Waco website, said McGowan is a good guy whom everyone likes. She said he has done a lot for the development of downtown since he moved to Waco.
McGowan has been the urban development director at the chamber since 2007. In the past 9 years since he began he has estimated $530 million in new development activity and more than $380 million development is under current construction. Waco has seen an estimate of 619 new residential units amidst all the downtown progression.
When McGowan was director, he made it his goal to improve the downtown area between Baylor and Cameron Park. Some of the highlighted businesses McGowan helped kick-start were Dichotomy Coffee & Spirits, Austin’s on the Avenue, Metro, Muddle, Portofino’s, the Green Room and the reopening of the Hippodrome.
McGowan also founded an all-volunteer grass roots level planning and brainstorming group called 1000 Friends of Waco. This community action group is a non profit group that meets monthly at a roundtable event to discuss urban development and growth planning in the area.
The group is completely open to citizens of the public, and was organized for the purpose of giving citizens more involvement in the improvement process of Waco.
The group is partnered with the Imagine Waco initiative. McGowan believed that community building couldn’t exist in a vacuum, and the input and ideas of the citizens of Waco for critical for developmental success.
McGowan was also a leader in the Imagine Waco Plan, the start up of the Waco Downtown Farmers Market and a startup business incubator known as ThincSpace.
Former Downtown Farmers Market manager Camille Cody was also very surprised of the news.
“The Chamber has said it was taking a different path and had a change of plans for the future,” Cody said. “I think everyone was really surprised at their decision because the city is thriving so much already. There hasn’t been talk from the Chamber though, just a lot of speculation,” she said.
Speculation is definitely buzzing around many Waco residents. Robert Whitley, a receiving logistics assistant in the Waco area, thinks the move by the chamber was suspicious. He thinks that “change in direction” is an unfair basis to lay claim for dismissal on.
“Sounds like something fishy has been pulled out of the Brazos and by pulling this move they have dismissed a lot of loyalty and dedication to the city of Waco,” Whitley said.
A marketing advisor at Providence Healthcare Network, April Leman said it was sad that just as Waco starts to improve, something like this happens. She believes that McGowan was the real reason downtown Waco had such a revival.
“I’m surprised and disappointed. What does this mean for our downtown businesses?” Leman said.
McGowan would not comment about the Chamber’s decision. He did however say that it was a true honor to have the ability to play a small part in transforming Waco and creating the momentum to hopefully keep the community initiatives moving forward. He is excited about the future and encourages citizens that good things are still to come for Waco.
“As to my future, I’m not done with Wacotown yet. I will continue working as a small business owner and a volunteer to transform this community,” McGowan said.
Chamber President Matt Meadors told Waco Tribune Herald reporters last week that they have not decided whether the urban development position will continue. The Chamber does assure citizens that the priority of downtown development in Waco will continue to be put first.