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Last-minute Christmas shoppers hit the stores

‘Tis the weekend before Christmas, and retailers across Greater Waco are hoping for a tidal wave of last-minute shoppers, some knowing their stores and the chains they represent face do-or-die times.

Sears Holdings continues to suffer massive financial losses. Toys R Us has filed for bankruptcy protection and may close up to 200 stores after the holidays, prompting some suppliers to curtail deliveries. JC Penney has seen better days, though the Waco location was brimming Thursday and Friday. And the H&M fashion chain is warily eyeing its bottom line.

Richland Mall manager Kandace Menning said holiday traffic there “has been a little soft,” though she has not yet received reports from individual stores.

“My observation is that I would be happy with flat,” Menning said.

In other words, the crowds there are nothing to write Santa about.

“And why would they be?” she said. “You have people like ‘Good Morning America’ telling people to stay out of the malls and buy online. Retail is more challenging than ever. No one has the time they used to have. Walk the mall and you will see people on their cell phones, comparing prices.

“Bottom line is that some of our tenants are crying the blues, saying sales are soft, while others are going gangbusters.”

She listed the remodeled Victoria’s Secret, the expanded Bath & Body Works and the JC Penney store as obvious success stories this holiday season, where crowds have been large enough to catch her eye.

The 45,000-square-foot Dick’s sporting goods store under construction will enhance the mall’s appeal when it opens in spring 2018, she said.

Overall, holiday sales are purring, buoyed by record-level online sales led by Amazon, which reportedly will capture 50 percent of the tally.

The National Retail Federation predicted holiday sales would increase 4 percent this year over last, to $682 billion, while a tracking firm called Customer Growth Partners recently increased its projected year-over-year increase from 4.5 to 5.6 percent, according to an MSNBC online story.

If that jump materializes, “that would be the strongest holiday season since just before the Great Recession,” according to MSNBC.

It mentions that going into “Super Saturday,” retailers including Best Buy, Walmart and Ross Stores are seeing green, with home-improvement giants Home Depot and Lowe’s also reporting ringing registers.

Anyone passing the Target Greatland store at Bosque Boulevard and Wooded Acres Drive on Friday would have seen a packed parking lot, with exiting shoppers pushing carts brimming with merchandise.

The Kohl’s at Central Texas Marketplace had winding lines at the registers both Thursday and Friday.

“I did all my shopping in November, but I’m here with my mom to pick up a few last-minute things,” said Larissa Verde, 28, a University High School teacher who was checking clothing prices at Kohl’s.

Her other favorite shopping destinations include the Sephora cosmetics boutique in JC Penney and Target Greatland, Verde said.

Elsewhere in Kohl’s, Linda Salinas, 48, was trying on jewelry with designs on picking out a ring husband Paul Salinas, 47, would buy her for Christmas. Linda said her shopping list included stops at Walgreens, Walmart, Sephora at JC Penney, and Dillard’s.

Joyce Guelle, 54, a Clifton resident, said she spent much of the morning shopping on Amazon, but a deal on shirts and wool socks required a visit to the Cabela’s store at Central Texas Marketplace.

“I bought a couple of novelty items online, but I do most of my real shopping in brick-and-mortar stores,” Guelle said.

First Data Corp., which collected data from 1.3 million point-of-sale locations, reported the holiday season has brought strong demand for electronics, appliances, building materials, furniture and home furnishings. The result has been a 5.4 percent increase in retail spending between Oct. 28 and Dec. 15, according to a recent report by Reuters.

The state of Texas in November saw its jobless rate drop to 3.8 percent, an all-time low, according to a report Friday by the Texas Workforce Commission. In the Waco Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes McLennan and Falls counties, the rate was 3.5 percent.

Staff Photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Castleman Creek

Midway’s Castleman Creek Elementary Principal Mandy Johnson, dressed as the Grinch, waves to arriving students while other staff members, including Cassandra Benjamin dressed as a present, pass out hugs Friday during their last day of school before the holiday break. On Thursday, Johnson and assistant principal Clint Glaesmann, protraying the Elf on a Shelf, hung from the school entrance to welcome students.

Mattis: 'Storm clouds gathering' over Korean Peninsula

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — “Storm clouds are gathering” over the Korean Peninsula, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis declared Friday. And as diplomats try to resolve the nuclear standoff, he told soldiers that the U.S. military must do its part by being ready for war.

Without forecasting a conflict, Mattis emphasized that diplomacy stands the best chance of preventing a war if America’s words are backed up by strong and prepared armed forces.

“My fine young soldiers, the only way our diplomats can speak with authority and be believed is if you’re ready to go,” Mattis told several dozen soldiers and airmen at the 82nd Airborne Division’s Hall of Heroes, his last stop on a two-day pre-holiday tour of bases to greet troops.

Mattis’ comments came as the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved tough new sanctions against North Korea, compelling nations to sharply reduce their sales of oil to the reclusive country and send home all North Korean expatriate workers within two years. Such workers are seen as a key source of revenue for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s cash-strapped government.

President Donald Trump and other top U.S. officials have made repeated threats about U.S. military action. Some officials have described the messaging as twofold in purpose: to pressure North Korea to enter into negotiations on getting rid of its nuclear arsenal, and to motivate key regional powers China and Russia to put more pressure on Pyongyang so a war is averted.

For the military, the focus has been on ensuring soldiers are ready should the call come.

At Fort Bragg, Mattis recommended the troops read T.R. Fehrenbach’s military classic “This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness,” first published in 1963, a decade after the Korean War ended.

“Knowing what went wrong the last time around is as important as knowing your own testing, so that you’re forewarned — you know what I’m driving at here,” he said as soldiers listened in silence. “So you gotta be ready.”

The U.S. has nearly 28,000 troops permanently stationed in South Korea, but if war came, many thousands more would be needed for a wide range of missions, including ground combat.

The retired Marine Corps general fielded questions on many topics in his meetings with troops at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba and Naval Station Mayport in Florida on Thursday and at Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg in North Carolina on Friday. North Korea seemed uppermost on troops’ minds as they and their families wonder whether war looms.

Asked about recent reports that families of U.S. service members in South Korea might be evacuated, Mattis stressed his belief that diplomacy could still avert a crisis. He said there is no plan now for an evacuation.

“I don’t think it’s at that point yet,” he said, adding that an evacuation of American civilians would hurt the South Korean economy. He said there is a contingency plan that would get U.S. service members’ families out “on very short notice.”

Mattis said he sees little chance of Kim disrupting the Winter Olympics, which begin in South Korea in February.

“I don’t think Kim is stupid enough to take on the whole world by killing their athletes,” he said.

Mattis repeatedly stressed that there is still time to work out a peaceful solution. At one point he said diplomacy is “going positively.” But he also seemed determined to steel U.S. troops against what could be a costly war on the Korean Peninsula.

“There is very little reason for optimism,” he said.

Trump signs tax cut in "rush job" Oval Office signing event

WASHINGTON — In the end, Donald Trump’s top achievement as president — a $1.5 trillion tax overhaul — was finalized in a “rush job” of an affair. And that was OK with him.

None of the members of Congress who muscled through the biggest tax overhaul in 30 years were in the Oval Office on Friday as Trump signed the measure into law. That’s because the president was not pleased with news coverage that morning questioning whether he would get the bill signed before Christmas. So he ordered up a spur-of-the-moment signing event where he ticked through what he described as the “tremendous” accomplishments of his first year in office.

“This is the capper,” Trump said of the tax package, using his last moments of the year in the White House to sign the bill before flying to Florida for the holidays. He also signed a temporary spending bill to keep the government running and provide money to upgrade the nation’s missile defenses.

But the tax cut was at the top of Trump’s mind after months of struggling to deliver his agenda through a Republican-controlled Congress. Trump on Friday thanked the absent GOP leaders and called the bill “something I’m very proud of.”

Then, with no legislators on hand, he offered to distribute pens from his signing event to reporters assembled in the Oval Office. Clearly feeling some end-of-year cheer, the president who loves to decry “fake news” gave reporters and camera crews credit for “working very hard” and said, “We really appreciate that.”

Starting next year, the new tax law will deliver big cuts to corporation and wealthy Americans and more modest reductions to other families. The tax law is the largest since 1986, but far from the biggest in American history, as the president repeatedly claims.

The first major overhaul of the nation’s tax laws since 1986 could add $1.5 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Republican leaders have said they’re willing to take that step in pursuit of a boost to the economy. But some in the GOP worry their party could face a political backlash without an aggressive public relations tour.

Trump continued to pitch the new law as a win a for the middle class, insisting that even though polling indicates the tax cut is unpopular, the results will win people over.

“I don’t think I’m going to have to travel too much to sell it” during the 2018 midterm elections, Trump said. “I think it’s selling itself.”

Passage of the tax bill marked a significant victory for a president hungry for a win after chaos and legislative failures during his first year in office. Trump also ended the year with his sights still trained on his treatment by the press, tweeting that the mainstream media “NEVER talk about our accomplishments in the end of year reviews.”

“We are compiling a long @ beautiful list,” he tweeted.

Trump did celebrate passage of the tax bill at with a big ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House earlier in the week. But he scrapped plans for a more formal signing ceremony in the new year to get it signed before heading to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

“I said that the bill would be on my desk before Christmas,” Trump said, as a Marine helicopter whirred outside, waiting to ferry him to Air Force One. “I didn’t want you folks to say that I wasn’t keeping my promise.”

There were more big promises to come, including Trump’s suggestion that he’ll work with Democrats in the election year to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges. Infrastructure, he said, is “easy.”

And there was no looking back.

Asked if he had any regrets, Trump shook his head and said, “No.”

Commissioners continue yearlong back-and-forth on road departments

After more than a year of discussions on how McLennan County should structure its road and bridge operations, commissioners appear no closer to a consensus.

During a recent meeting, Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones said each precinct should use his department’s structure, which he argued is the most efficient.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell said each commissioner was elected to meet the varied needs of their precinct, so there is no need for each road and bridge department to be similar.

Continuing a push that started in earnest late last year, Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry said the county should merge precinct departments into one countywide department, arguing it would be the best use of taxpayer money.

County Judge Scott Felton does not oversee a road and bridge department but has previously supported the move to a single road and bridge department.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Lester Gibson missed this week’s meeting.

As Snell again this week lobbied to restructure his road and bridge department, he received pushback, which this time included a new proposal from Jones.

Jones proposed a uniform structure among precinct departments, based on his road and bridge department for Precinct 3.

It has 14 employees and one office administrator who work four 10-hour days per week. The longer days result in more road work per hour on the clock, because work sites do not have to be set up and torn down as often, he said.

“As far as 4-10s go, I think it’s been proven when you’re setting up and closing down every day there’s a certain amount of time in there that gets lost,” he said.

Snell countered that employees can only handle so many hours in the heat and that his crew starts and ends its workdays early. He also said that as fatigue sets in, the likelihood of injuries and accidents increases.

Jones responded that employees also get more recovery time with three days off. He said Precinct 4 and Precinct 2 operate with those hours during daylight saving time.

Jones acknowledged that Precinct 4 has significantly more road miles than the others and may need an extra employee.

“If one commissioner needs another person because they do have nearly 75 percent more miles than everybody else, I can understand that,” Jones said. “We’re getting it done for way less. Let’s revert to the lowest common denominator.”

Snell said he uses his budget and personnel to best fit his precinct’s needs.

“What it takes to make your constituents happy may not be mine,” Snell said.

Felton referenced data provided by Jones that shows only Gibson’s Precinct 2 spends more per mile of road than Snell’s Precinct 1.

Precinct 1 spends $12,755 per mile and has 238 miles of road. Precinct 2 spends $13,958 per mile and has 211 miles of road. Precinct 3 spends $11,165 per mile and has 236 miles of road. Precinct 4 spends $8,504 per mile and has 394 miles of road.

Looking only at the cost of construction material per mile, Precinct 1 has the most budgeted this year, according to the data.

For materials, Precinct 1 is spending $3,564 per mile. Precinct 2 is spending $3,079 per mile. Precinct 3 is spending $2,966 per mile. Precinct 4 is spending $2,538 per mile.

Snell said the numbers alone do not presented a fair comparison. Each precinct has different types of soil, and the Precinct 1 ground surface often requires roads to be completely torn down and rebuilt, he said.

Felton has previously said moving to a single road and bridge department would take politics out of roadwork and eliminate duplication of efforts across the four precincts.

Perry said the restructuring Snell has requested for his department would push the county further from, not closer to, a unified road system.

Jones also proposed the commissioners and their administrative assistants move out of the Records Building and to their precinct yard buildings since the downtown Records Building is prime real estate. There are multiple county departments, including human resources, desperate for more space, he said.

Snell said he has no problem with moving.

Patricia “Pat” Chisolm-Miller, Precinct 2 administrative assistant, said there would be no room for her and Gibson to move to their precinct yard until next year when a new barn is built.