Waco Mayor Talks Development, the Economy, and the I-35 Bridges

by Bryan Fonville | June 8, 2018

Baylor grad and Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver sat down with guest contributor Bryan Fonville to talk development, the economy, and the bridges being built over I-35.

What’s an average day like for the mayor of Waco, Texas? Obviously, it changes every day. But there are usually at least three or four, sometimes seven or eight, meetings with various groups, staff members, and committees. It’s pretty broad in terms of what you’re covering. Fortunately, we’ve got great staff and city management that give us support. The office of the mayor of Waco — there’s no such thing.

You are a volunteer, but it is very near a full-time job. Prior to becoming mayor, you served on the city council. What was it that made you want to run for city council, aside, of course, from the big salary and the numerous perks? [Laughs] A friend of mine asked if I would consider applying for that position. It really was the first time I had ever given any thought to that at all. I had served on enough boards and been involved in the city, and I think I just felt like I had the ability to do it at the time, and I had a flexible enough schedule to do that work. And I love Waco. I grew up here. I’ve always been passionate about Waco. The thought of being in politics does not appeal to me at all. It still doesn’t appeal to me. But being able to be involved in this sort of rebirth that Waco has experienced over the last few years – you could kind of see that coming back then – has been really rewarding to be part of.

Your grandfather (Buddy Bostick) founded KWTX-TV here in Waco and served as chairman of American Bank for over 30 years. He, like you, also went to Baylor…except I believe your granddad worked out a special deal with Pat Neff…? Yeah, that’s what I’ve always been told. He grew up in relative poverty on a cotton farm outside of Moody, Texas. His older sister had come to Baylor. He worked out a deal with Pat Neff, who was then the president of the university. They started KWBU, the radio station. And he convinced Pat Neff that a great way for him to spread his message and to get his speeches out in front of more people was to have a radio station. In exchange, his last two years at Baylor were tuition-free. And so that was the genesis of KWBU way back then. And he went on to work in other radio stations. Then he joined the army air corps during WWII, and he was training to be a fighter pilot and completed his training just as the war ended, so he never went into battle. But he was trained to be a fighter pilot and was a really good pilot. He quit flying when he was ninety.

Uh…did you fly with him when he was ninety? [Laughing] Yeah, I did. He would fly by himself sometimes, too. He might should have stopped at eighty-nine, let’s put it that way.

What was your Baylor experience like? I had a great time at Baylor. I met my wife at Baylor — that was probably the best thing I did at Baylor, without a doubt. She ended up being sweetheart of SAE. Honestly, the fraternity was so good for me from the standpoint of developing some leadership skills and just being involved in things — building floats, doing service projects, SING, intramurals. I wasn’t a great athlete, but we had a great time playing intramurals. So my grades weren’t the best. [Laughter] But I had a lot of fun and learned a lot in the process; but, they were good enough to get me into law school.

There’s been a lot of talk the last few years about how strong of a partnership there is now between the city and Baylor, but it hasn’t always been like that. What’s different about how things are now? I think you have to give Judge Starr a lot of credit for the closer relationship between Baylor and the city. I wouldn’t just say the city, but the community and Central Texas, too. When Baylor asked the TIF board here—which is composed of the city, the county, the Waco Independent School District and MCC—to contribute to Baylor Stadium, and the community made a huge investment in the stadium, I think that was a real important step in cementing the relationship and recognizing that we are very, very connected. When Baylor does well, it’s really good for Waco. When Waco does well, it’s good for Baylor. Without Baylor, Waco looks very, very different. It really does. I think Dr. Livingstone is committed to that. She and I have had several meetings about things that we need to be continuing to work on together. She’s certainly got her plate full right now, but I think that you’re going to continue to see new initiatives that take place between Baylor and the city and the community that will both strengthen Waco and strengthen Baylor going forward.

You mentioned the contribution to McLane Stadium. In 2014, the Downtown Tax Increment Finance Zone awarded $35 million to Baylor for the construction of the stadium. At the time, there was a lot of talk about the stadium being a “community events complex.” The mayor at the time, Malcolm Duncan Jr., said that was one of the reasons he felt persuaded to support the $35 million contribution. And Baylor’s Reagan Ramsower said “Baylor committed to the stadium’s off-season success when it accepted $35 million from the city of Waco.” Do you feel like McLane Stadium is getting the amount of use that the city initially expected? The concerts have not materialized yet like we had hoped that they would. I think the Baylor Club, though, is constantly used for community events and is a real showpiece for Waco to be able to have events over there and look back across the river. And as the river continues to develop, it’s going to be even more that way. So, some of that (vision) has been realized, some of it has yet to be realized. I still think that significant concerts will take place there. Baylor and Waco need to continue to evolve a little bit to get to that point.

Obviously McLane Stadium served as a catalyst for some of the other development projects that are going on. What are a couple of projects that you’re particularly excited about? Startup Waco is a project that grew out of a position that was created by Baylor and Waco for a recent Baylor graduate named Kevin Renois. At the same time, the Greater Waco Chamber had a small co-working space aimed at entrepreneurs called thInc Space that had done some good but just didn’t have the legs that it needed to do what we envision Startup Waco being able to do. Startup Waco is really about the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Waco. The plan is to open up a shared workspace called Hustle on Austin Avenue. It is a community-wide collaboration that includes the Greater Waco Chamber, Baylor University, the City of Waco, Waco Foundation, and hopefully McLennan County, Cooper Foundation, Rapoport Foundation, and private donors. Baylor is playing a key role and has given Greg Leman, who is the Director of Baylor’s LAUNCH business accelerator, as a loaned executive to help us get Startup Waco and Hustle going. So that’s a really exciting project. We’ve got so many. We now have a lot of students at Baylor who want to stay in Waco, which is a very big change from when I was at Baylor.

I think that’s part of what we have learned from CampusTown. CampusTown is designed to try to encourage students to learn to love Waco – to try to understand all of the great things that are happening in Waco while they’re students. Then, if they’re interested in staying, CampusTown is designed to help them find jobs in Waco. That’s been the challenge. The people that want to stay in Waco can’t find a job that is commensurate with the degree that they’ve earned at Baylor. We think that that’s starting to change. We’re working on several initiatives to try to change that, and we think that the entrepreneurial aspect of it, of Startup Waco, gives at least young entrepreneurs the tools that they need to stay in Waco and have their new companies thrive. And so, we’ve got to continue to try to get more white-collar business downtown so that we can attract more folks like you and keep you in Waco. I think you’re starting to see it now with the Young Professionals group. There’s a trend developing of new graduates and recent graduates who are wanting to stay in Waco or return to Waco after short stints in bigger cities, and that’s very encouraging.

You said there are some things under way. Are you able to talk about what those things are? We did a Request for Proposal on Heritage Square. There is a developer, Phillip Williams, who is trying to put together a development in Waco. He’s got some local partners, including Chris McGowan, who is formerly with the chamber, to do Class A office space in Downtown Waco. And his plan revolves around getting companies to relocate to Waco. We’ve got tons and tons of companies who are relocating to Texas. Many of them are going to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. A lot of them are going to Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. And he (Phillip) is convinced that we can do that in Waco. And he’s got some people that have a lot of experience in the relocation of big companies that are telling him, “You may not get a headquarters right now, but there are lots of secondary offices and port offices that you could attract that could have good paying jobs.” And if we can line things up for workforce between Baylor graduates, MCC graduates, and graduates from their university programs with Texas Tech and Tarleton, that you’ve got workforce opportunities here that are just what these companies are looking for, it’s just a matter of trying to get them matched up and aligned. That’s going to take some work. But I think we’re going to try to start small and see if this thing can get legs. And if it can, it will really transform downtown. There are a number of other developments that are also going on downtown that are mostly retail and multi-family focused. We need all of that, but we really need more high-quality office space downtown.

For years, it seems like there’s been constant talk about developing the riverfront. Can you give us an update on where things stand with the city-owned land that fronts the river and when construction might begin? We’re clear and ready to go on the site where Catalyst Urban is doing a promenade project, which is a combination of retail, multi-family, a boutique hotel on the river, and then restaurant pad sites on the river. And so they’re ready to go now. They’ve got to complete their plans now that they’ve got a clean site, and we expect that construction should begin there by the beginning of 2019, if not a little before. There’s also another project down there called Brazos Commons, which is owned by two local developers, Joe Beard and Rick Sheldon, and theirs is also retail and multi-family. They want to put a larger conference hotel in that space. They’ve been committed to this thing for a long time, and I feel confident that they’ll get something good done there in the next couple of years.

So for a Baylor fan coming back on game day, when is all of that going to be done? That’s a great question. I think—realistically—you’re probably looking at three years before it’s really finished. You’ll see things happening a lot sooner than that, but in terms of being able to stay in one of the hotels or eat in the restaurants down there, I think it’s probably about the time we win our next Big 12 championship.

For a lot of alums coming back to campus, Waco looks different than it did during their student years. What excites you about Waco’s future and what do you think future generations of alums can look forward to? Well I think we have a lot of momentum right now in Waco. Obviously, Chip and Joanna Gaines and the Magnolia effect have been tremendous.

Do you text back and forth with them? [Laughing] No, I’m not on their radar at all. I’d like to ask Joanna for some advice every once-in-a-while. They are so busy, it’s unbelievable. LaSalle is already starting to redevelop. With the new Magnolia Table at the end of LaSalle and the shuttle that we’re going to put in that will run from downtown, you’ll see that area start to redevelop, which will be really good for Baylor. And then, in addition, at the end of this year they’re going to start the expansion and renovation of I-35 through downtown, which is going to be… Fun. [Laughing] … very difficult for a while. But it will be really good for the Baylor-Waco connection when it’s finished because they’re going to realign those overpasses, making them much more pedestrian friendly. They’re going to have some light features and things that you’ve probably heard about. And I think that will make the connection between Baylor and downtown that much better. And, I think you’re going to see downtown continue to redevelop at even a greater pace. Hopefully we’re going to see some big buildings with lots of offices in them in the near future. So, I’m excited about what Dr. Livingstone has planned for Baylor. I think she is proving herself to be a great hire, and look forward to continuing to work together with the university. It’s just really fun to see this stuff happen in your town that you’ve been waiting all this time saying, “Look at the potential.” And now, people are starting to see the potential.

And, we didn’t talk about this, but we have the IronMan 70.3, which is the half-distance IronMan triathlon, which is going to be in Waco for the next five years. So that’s a big deal. And it brings in a lot of people that will see this opportunity. That, in and of itself, will be a catalyst. People are starting to see Waco as sort of a hub for outdoor and athletic activities. And I mean nobody has anything like Cameron Park. It’s an amazing asset. People in Waco have been talking about it for years, but people outside are starting to finally understand.

How many more terms do you think you have in you? One. [Laughing]

Is that a family-imposed restriction? Yeah. Both self, and family. And to be fair to my brother, too. We have lots of things that we need to do in our businesses, and we’re working hard on those things. But it’s hard for me to focus on those things right now. And so, yeah, I think two more years. There are lots of other qualified people who are interested in doing the job, and I’ll be happy to see who takes it next. But that’s two years from now. We’ve still got time to get some things done.

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