The new owners of the Cotton Belt railroad bridge want the public’s help in determining the future of this piece of Waco’s past.

The nonprofit City Center Waco received the iron truss bridge last year as a donation from developer Rick Sheldon and his wife, Lisa. The idea was to incorporate it into the city’s river trail system and perhaps make it a leisure destination unto itself. The bridge was built in 1907 but had been abandoned for decades when the Sheldons bought it last year.

City Center Waco officials will discuss the project at a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Texas Life Annex building, 1000 Washington Ave. The come-and-go meeting lasts until 7 p.m., with the presentation repeated midway through the meeting.

“We want to hear from people about what they would like,” said Megan Henderson, the agency’s executive director. “At this point, our goal is to find out how people would want to use the space and relate to the space. … What kind of space does it make sense for this to be? Should it be purely functional, or should it be a place to gather and linger?”

At minimum, Henderson expects the bridge would be renovated to be safe for pedestrian crossings and tie in with ramps to the new $5.7 million riverwalk section the city of Waco is building on the east side of the river. When that segment is finished, the lighted hike-and-bike trail will run from Brazos Park East to McLane Stadium.

A vision Sheldon depicted through an animated video last year would make it more than just a pedestrian connection. The video, prepared by the Wallace Group, shows a festival walkway along Mary Avenue that crosses University Parks Drive and extends to the bridge. The bridge itself would be widened and furnished with benches, dramatic lighting, landscaping and concession stands, making a place to hold events or just hang out.

Estimated $7M cost

Henderson said that vision would cost an estimated $7 million, which would probably require significant fundraising or private partnerships in addition to public money.

She said seeing the bridge as an extension of Mary Avenue makes sense given development momentum in that area. In addition to Riversquare Center, businessmen Todd Behringer and Shane Turner are creating a $9 million retail center at Mary and University Parks, while other investors are about to open the Mary Avenue Market, an 11,000-square-foot food and retail emporium, at Sixth Street.

Ultimately, Mary Avenue could be improved to become a bike-pedestrian route and extend for miles west along the abandoned Cotton Belt Line, Henderson said. On the east side of the bridge, it could connect to future development along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the Elm Avenue corridor.

“Having that be a pleasant and maneuverable and functional place for human-powered transportation just makes sense,” she said. “One of the fun things about this is that this is privately held, but it’s a piece we’d ultimately love to be in the public realm. We’re holding this in trust with that being the ultimate goal. This is an opportunity for people to help write that future.”

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