From downtown development to the Twin Peaks trial and finding a future site for the Waco landfill, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver and McLennan County Judge Scott Felton discussed the state of the city and county during a luncheon Friday at Ridgewood Country Club that about 100 people attended.
Securing a new location for the Waco landfill now on U.S. Highway 84, which has about seven years of life left, “is the most contentious thing I’ve ever dealt with in my life,” Deaver said, referring to organized opposition from residents living near the area pinpointed for landfill development.
“Wherever we decide to put it, people will not want it anywhere near where they live,” Deaver said. “But I can assure you, the city council will do what is best for the community as a whole. This has not been the most fun project to work on, but we’re getting there.”
He said the existing landfill is not the source of foul odors drawing complaints from area landowners.
“That is a sewage problem, and the city continues to try to track it down,” he said.
County Judge Scott Felton said Twin Peaks “is our landfill,” and laughter greeted his quip that “both stink and both are right in the middle of us.”
The first of what could become dozens of trials related to the bloody shootout in May 2015 started this week in the security-tightened McLennan County Courthouse.
Felton said the county has spent more than $500,000 in Twin Peaks-related expenses, which include the transport of bodies for autopsies, providing legal representation for indigent defendants, overtime pay and housing of prisoners in facilities not operated by the county.
The county has received $268,000 from the state of Texas to help offset Twin Peaks costs and will pursue more, Felton said.
Felton introduced county elected officials attending the luncheon but noted the absence of District Attorney Abel Reyna.
“I think Abel is busy right now,” Felton said to a roar from the crowd.
Felton said he has worked in downtown Waco 35 years, counting his time as county judge and former president of local Wells Fargo bank operations.
“I’ve seen more change in the past 10 years, really five years, than I’ve seen in all the other years combined,” he said.
Waco’s inner city has become a bustling magnet for developers converting longtime eyesores into retail and dining destinations, loft apartments, hotels and townhouses, Deaver said.
“An estimated 45,000 people attended the Silobration last weekend,” Deaver said of the annual event at Magnolia Market at the Silos. “Our hotel occupancy rate is 75.5 percent, second-highest in the state behind only Austin at 76 percent. I think if we round our number up, we’re equal to Austin.”
Waco played host to 2.6 million visitors last year, including 1.6 million attracted by Magnolia Market, Deaver said.
He said the Silo District Trolley ferried 210,000 passengers around downtown last year. A recorded script has been added to entertain riders, and ambassadors soon will ride along to talk up the town, Deaver said.
Deaver also addressed other Waco-area topics, including the hiring of Marcus Nelson as new superintendent of the Waco Independent School District, and Linda Livingstone as the first woman to serve as Baylor University’s president.
“The relationship between Waco and Baylor is as strong as it has ever been,” he said. “There are areas we work together on to achieve common goals, and Dr. Livingstone has embraced that approach.”
The Waco Humane Society Animal Shelter on Circle Road has seen major improvements and has maintained the no-kill status it achieved a year ago, Deaver said.
“We receive about 500 animals a month and we manage to adopt out about 95 percent of them, which is amazing,” Deaver said.
He said 42-year city employee Wiley Stem III, who recently was named to succeed Dale Fisseler as city manager, played a major role in facilitating the turnaround.
Deaver said Waco has passed an ordinance to accommodate the shooting of movies locally, making it a “film friendly city.”
“A rumor is circulating that a major motion picture is being filmed here this weekend,” Deaver said, declining to comment further.
Putting body cameras on Waco Police officers should take place early in 2018, a multimillion-dollar project that should give the public confidence the department is being transparent, he said.
Local highway projects on the drawing board include widening Interstate 35 between North Loop 340 and South 12th Street, a three-year project set to start in 2019, and construction of an overpass at Highway 84 and Speegleville Road, which may start early next year.
Deaver and Felton said the city and county are continuing discussions on a regional approach to developing sources of treated water.
“You can offer all the financial incentives and tax abatements possible to attract heavy-water-using industry, but you can’t get them without adequate water,” Felton said. “That has our attention.”