Mission Waco executive director Jimmy Dorrell would often stand outside the nonprofit group’s headquarters at North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue, point to Martha Jane’s Liquor Store across the street and dream aloud about buying the building and transforming it into an asset for the organization.
After years of tossing figures at proprietor Martha Jane Ezar, Dorrell announced Tuesday he has closed a deal to acquire the rambling, 1930s-era structures on that corner, including the liquor store site, for $125,000.
“I have a sense this is a big piece in the puzzle of healing a broken neighborhood. The corner has a lot of ugly history,” Dorrell said, standing outside Martha Jane’s about noon for a brief news conference. “Martha Jane admitted she had grown tired of trying to run it by herself.”
Dorrell said he has not identified a use for the buildings but would consider leasing out the space for retail shops. As with every project Mission Waco tackles, it will pursue input from people living in the North Waco neighborhood that now serves as home to the headquarters of Mission Waco/Mission World, Jubilee Theatre, Jubilee Food Market, Urban Edibles and the World Cup Cafe and Fair Trade Market.
Renovating the structures and removing asbestos likely will cost three times the sales price, possibly as much as $400,000, Dorrell said. The next step in the process is crafting a plan to raise the money.
Dorrell and Mission Waco recently raised almost $1 million to convert a long-vacant former Safeway store at North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue into Jubilee Food Market, which opened in November. That figure includes contributions from individuals who bought symbolic stock in the store; donated or discounted labor and materials; and donations from H-E-B and Walmart.
“My gut feeling is we need more retail in the neighborhood. A little retail center would make sense,” Dorrell said. “It would be healthy financially to keep money in the area that now is being spent elsewhere.”
Leveling the existing buildings and replacing them with new construction “would be ideal if we had a really big donation,” Dorrell said. “But part of what we like to do is preserve history and save old neighborhoods if they are salvageable. This site is not very pretty, but we can make it pretty. And I can’t imagine anyone giving us enough for demolition and construction.”
Dorrell said a longtime supporter of Mission Waco who lives in Dallas made a donation to cover the cost of buying the liquor store. He said the donor wants to remain anonymous and is traveling in Europe and not reachable for comment .
Martha Jane Ezar, 73, said she has owned a package store at North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue for more than four decades. She watched the neighborhood outside her door evolve under the influence of Mission Waco and Dorrell, “who has done an awesome job of cleaning the place up.”
Mission Waco is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and has prepared a plan for the next 25 that includes raising $9 million for local and international ministries and capital improvements.
Ezar grew up in North Waco, attended West Junior High School and Waco High School but did not graduate. She learned to run a store from a relative who sold everything from shoe polish and candy to beer and cigarettes on what was known decades ago as “The Square” in downtown Waco.
With two children to support, she opened her own package store at North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue in 1973. That part of town became a crime-infested hot spot for prostitution and drug sales, though Ezar said she tolerated no profanity or loitering on her property.
Her business thrived to the point that she acquired two buildings next to hers, leasing them out to retailers until striking the deal with Dorrell.
In 2006, Ezar nearly lost her life in a brutal attack in her establishment. A man struck her in the head with a half-gallon bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, which shattered on impact, and then continued the assault using a cash register. Ezar said the incident took place while her grandchildren were in the store, “and they were begging him not to kill me.”
She spent three days in intensive care with blood on the brain, and the perpetrator received a life sentence in prison. She later made arrangements to let another person run the shop, with the goal of selling it if the transition went well. It did not, so Ezar went back to work.
Meanwhile, Dorrell frequently showed interest in buying the property, but he and Ezar could not agree on a price. Once she asked $400,000 for the business and the buildings but found no takers, she said.
Finally, she grew tired of practically living in the store and working 66-hour weeks, she said. She made a deal with Dorrell, though the final price was about $25,000 less than she had hoped to receive.
“I’m relieved, very relieved,” Ezar said. “I don’t have to get up and work 11 hours a day anymore.”
Sue Goodwin, owner of North Waco Tropical Fish, 1521 N. 15th St., said she is excited about the changing look and feel of a neighborhood where she has operated for almost 45 years. She remembers the many “hole-in-the-wall bars” and the adult theater that blighted the scene.
“As for Martha Jane’s, she did not put up with much,” Goodwin said. “We used to go over there and buy Cokes and ice, and she kept the place pretty clean.”
Goodwin said she hopes Mission Waco considers placing a laundromat or hair salon in the space it just bought.