The first and likely only candidate forum ahead of the May 6 Waco City Council election drew only 17 people Monday, the first day of early voting.
But the forum, organized by the fledgling China Spring Neighborhood Association, gave residents in that area a rare chance to make their voices heard.
District 5 Councilman Jim Holmes and his challenger, Deanna Leach, chatted informally with residents about development issues, roads, city services and even the need for a grocery store in one of Waco’s fastest-growing reaches.
Speaking at the China Spring Independent School District school board chambers, the candidates both pledged to be advocates for quality development, public safety and parkland in the area.
“I’ve seen how much of an explosion of growth y’all have had,” said Leach, a craniosacral therapist. “I understand your growing pains. I support growth, but I think we should keep the authenticity of neighborhoods. I think we should support the right formula for developers to provide green space so we keep it as a neighborhood, not just as a bunch of houses.”
Leach said she also would like to see bike lanes in the area to complement the widening of China Spring Highway, now underway.
China Spring, a longstanding unincorporated community, lies partly within Waco city limits, where most of its growth has occurred. City planners say they expect the area within the city limits to grow from 5,200 residents in the 2010 Census to about 8,400 by 2020.
Police response times
Holmes, an investment banker appointed by the council last year to fill the former council seat of newly elected Mayor Kyle Deaver, said he wants to see infrastructure and public safety service levels improved in the area. Holmes said a recent presentation by Police Chief Ryan Holt shows that police response times to China Spring were about 14 minutes, compared to six minutes in the heart of town.
“I think that’s unacceptable,” he said, adding that he supports Holt’s request for 20 more officers during the next two years.
One attendee asked the candidates what they would do to champion a grocery store to the China Spring area.
Holmes said he would be willing to take a contingent of China Spring residents to meet with regional officials of H-E-B and possibly Brookshire Brothers.
Holmes said his investment company has owned supermarkets in the past, and he knows them to be “low-margin businesses” that are “very careful about large capital investments.”
He said H-E-B ultimately may build on land it owns at 19th Street and Lake Shore Drive, or it may go farther out to the China Spring population center.
“I don’t have any inside information,” he said. “All I know is that we need a grocery store out here.”
Leach said Brookshire Brothers, which has stores in McGregor, Lorena and Robinson, might be more willing to serve a population of China Spring’s size. But she said it doesn’t hurt to lobby both chains.
“You’re just going to have to ding on them to say, ‘We really need this to happen,’ ” she said.
Several questioners raised concerns about planning and development in the area, with some denouncing “greedy developers” and poor construction quality that jeopardizes the future reputation of China Spring.
Holmes said he wasn’t going to call out any developers for greed, but he said he has stood with homeowners who are trying to protect the character of their neighborhood. He said he sided with neighbors in opposing a rezoning in Bosqueville that would have allowed a 216-unit apartment on a tract that was a mixture of commercial and residential zoning. The rezoning failed, leaving the developer to say he would still build 216 units but include 60 rental houses.
“What citizens wanted was better density in there,” he said.
Holmes said he also supports a proposed ordinance requiring developers to set aside land for parks and open space or set aside money for parkland offsite.
Leach said the new neighborhood association is a great way for the China Spring neighborhood to have more influence at City Hall.
“I know it’s been difficult to go from a rural community to this much growth,” she said. “You really have to make friends with the planning department.”