By the time the Baylor Stadium Express hit Baylor’s board of regents meeting last week, it was rolling with unstoppable force.
The unanimous vote Thursday for the $250 million stadium was deemed so inevitable that Baylor already had begun testing work on the site and torn down a hotel to make room for it.
The city of Waco already had pledged an unprecedented $35 million in public funds, pending a second vote, which is viewed as a formality.
But as little as a year ago, the stadium now being called a cornerstone of Waco’s downtown development and Baylor’s athletic fortunes was anything but inevitable. In fact, without an uncanny alignment of events, the stadium might have remained a dream.
“I’m reluctant to be so presumptuous as to say what God is doing, but I don’t know how that would have happened without God having a hand in it,” said regent Dary Stone, who was regent chairman when the stadium proposal was developed last year.
Without the near-death experience of the Big 12 Conference, Baylor might not have had the urgency to put the stadium dream on the front burner, according to regents and major donors.
Without the Texas Department of Transportation’s decision to spend scarce funds to build Interstate 35 frontage road bridges and a new loop road, poor access to the riverfront site would have been a deal-killer, Baylor officials said.
Without the recent growth in the downtown Tax Increment Finance Zone’s treasure chest for downtown and riverfront development, the public contribution for the stadium would have been difficult to scrape together.
And without the spectacular 2011-12 athletic year, which included Baylor’s first bowl win in 20 years and Robert Griffin III’s Heisman Trophy, the idea of spending $250 million to house an underdog football team might have seemed far-fetched.
“We had an unbelievable football season, and as that stuff starts happening, you just gain momentum and momentum,” said Brian Nicholson, Baylor’s associate vice president of facility planning and construction.
He said after regents announced last November that they were considering a riverside stadium, Baylor’s football success helped keep enthusiasm alive.
“I remember a number of times thinking this thing (the stadium) was moving quick, and then it would start slowing down, then with eight seconds to go (Griffin) throws a touchdown pass and beats OU, and then everybody gears up again,” he said.
Regent chairman Richard Willis couldn’t deny that Griffin’s success helped pave the way for the stadium.
“Robert is such a great young man,” he said. “For us to get the best male and female athletes in the country in the same year is unbelievable. We probably would have done the stadium without the Heisman, but that got everybody to 110 percent.”
The idea of building an on-campus Baylor stadium to replace the 62-year-old Floyd Casey Stadium has been around for years. But it took persistent advocates and a conference crisis to give it traction.
The most persistent advocate was Drayton McLane Jr., the wholesale and sports magnate and 1958 Baylor grad. He recalls pushing for an on-campus stadium when he was regent chairman in 2000.
He only recently had relocated his own Houston Astros from the Astrodome to Minute Maid Park closer to downtown, and had seen attendance and excitement escalate.
He said Baylor’s aging stadium didn’t inspire excitement.
“I felt it was handicapping us in recruiting great athletes and getting students involved,” McLane said. “We were probably the only major school in the division where the stadium was not on campus.”
McLane said renovations to Floyd Casey took away the urgency of building a new stadium, but he persuaded then-President Robert Sloan to list an on-campus stadium as a long-term goal in Baylor’s 10-year plan, Baylor 2012.
During much of that decade, Baylor focused on an ambitious building program and chasing the George W. Bush presidential library, and the stadium dream receded into the background.
But the dreamers continued. In 2006, developer Rick Sheldon and partner Joe Beard bought riverfront property near Franklin Avenue, seeing it as a site for a major hotel and retail complex.
By the end of the year, Baylor learned it had lost the Bush library derby to Southern Methodist University, forcing it to rethink its plans for the proposed library site it had acquired across the river from campus.
In 2007, Sheldon publicized his billion-dollar vision for transforming the entire urban stretch of the Brazos with large-scale development, public river access facilities, signature frontage road bridges on Interstate 35 and a domed stadium for Baylor on the old Bush site.
He hired a consultant, former State Sen. David Sibley of Waco, to lobby state officials on the bridge project, alongside the city of Waco.
He said he met with Baylor officials, including then-President John Lilley, before including the Baylor property in the vision, but he found little enthusiasm for a new stadium.
In June 2008, Sheldon invited Baylor officials and other community leaders on a tour of Chattanooga, Tenn., to gather ideas about downtown development. Reagan Ramsower, Baylor vice president for finance and administration, was among them.
Asked then by a reporter about the stadium idea, he replied that the Bush site was best used for graduate and research institutes.
“It’s so highly visible, and a stadium would only be used six times a year,” he said of the site. “It doesn’t make sense for property of that quality to be used for a stadium.”
Meanwhile, new head football coach Art Briles and athletic director Ian McCaw were working to end Baylor’s losing streak in football, with Griffin as a secret weapon. Briles recalls numerous discussions with Drayton McLane and others about the need for a new stadium to keep Baylor competitive.
“If you’re going to have the opportunity to compete on a national level, you have to be able to back that up with proof that intercollegiate athletics are a big part of your school,” Briles said this week. “Having the stadium sends a message that Baylor is proactive, has a vision and is serious about staying in the forefront of one of the major conferences in America.
Baylor President Ken Starr said Briles made the case to Starr on the president’s first day at Baylor in June 2010.
“Art Briles told me it was a need, not a want, in order to be in the Big 12,” he said.
Almost immediately after he took office, Baylor was plunged into a conference crisis, as the biggest of the Big 12 schools threatened to leave the conference, possibly leaving smaller schools like Baylor as orphans.
That crisis appeared to be averted that year with new Big 12 contracts and the exit of two universities, but the conference was in peril again in summer 2011.
Texas A&M University left the conference, while Texas Christian University joined. The alignment appears to be stable for now, but the scare underscored Baylor’s need to stay competitive in all sports.
“Those were truly near-death experiences,” said Stone, who was regent chairman from 2009 to 2011. “It would have been catastrophic to Baylor.”
With that opening, McLane flew Stone and other Baylor officials to Kansas City, Mo., in summer 2011 to meet with the firm Populous, whose architects had designed Minute Maid Park and the University of Minnesota’s new $288 million stadium.
In August 2011, with the second conference crisis brewing, the whole regent board reviewed the plans, and in November, regents agreed to move forward with the vision.
“There was no choice,” Stone said. “We couldn’t sit around and think, ‘Oh, this is too fragile, we can’t get it done.’ If we really, truly had fallen out of a major sports conference, the financial hit would have been problematic, as well as the loss to our national profile and exposure. We had to have competitive infrastructure regardless of the various scenarios.”
Still, at that November meeting, not everyone was comfortable with the idea of spending some $250 million, given the university’s other commitments and its struggle to meet its endowment goals.
Regent Ron Wilson, a Waco physician, said he always thought it would be nice to have an on-campus stadium, but he balked at the price tag.
“I have to admit I was concerned at first,” he said. “It was a very large, expensive project, and we had so many other things on our plate. . . . I didn’t want any one project to be so big we couldn’t do anything else.”
But he said McLane’s willingness to set the ball rolling with the largest gift in Baylor’s history helped win him over. McLane and other major donors have helped Baylor raise about 80 percent of its private donation goal of $100 million to $120 million.
Ramsower, the vice president who would become a point man on the stadium project, said he also had to be convinced Baylor could afford a new stadium and that it needed to be on the river.
“As we began to work with the architect, I began to see the vision that it could be a catalytic project,” Ramsower said. “It really would connect downtown and Baylor and bridge both of them with the river.”
Ramsower, who is head of the new Downtown Development Corp., said he was persuaded that the stadium could be a year-round community events center.
Ramsower said the Texas Department of Transportation’s announcement in June 2011 that it would build signature frontage road bridges across the Brazos River was imperative to the project.
It wasn’t just the bridges that set the stage for the stadium. City officials had developed plans years ago for an extension of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard past the stadium, and the state this year approved funding for the extension.
The city spent more than $20 million building a new low-water dam in the mid-2000s that would ensure a constant level river-lake, and had extended its river trails all the way to the Ferrell Center on the river’s west side.
Meanwhile, the downtown TIF Zone had seen robust growth in the prior decade, becoming the entity that could give the biggest economic development contribution in McLennan County history.
The TIF Zone collects the portion of tax revenue generated by new property value in the downtown and river corridor zone and reinvests it in the same area.
Starr said the public-private partnership makes sense, because the stadium is envisioned as a community hub.
“As we reflected on the vision, we saw a huge set of exciting possibilities for the stadium,” he said. “We saw it’s only human ingenuity that provides the limit. This is what I believe Waco has been looking for.”
By late December, Baylor officials were confident enough in the project to begin mapping out their steps to prepare for the stadium.
By spring, the university was working with Oncor and prepping part of the land that abutted the Brazos River and Interstate 35 to eventually move transmission lines.
The regents in May authorized the university to begin soliciting proposals for a construction manager, resulting in the regents’ choice this past week of Austin Commercial, of Dallas, and Tulsa, Okla.-based Flintco.
Construction plans for specific parts of the stadium will be done in phases so work can start rolling along. Populous, the architect, has already prepared plans to install a sanitary sewer line on the site, the first project to be tackled.
Building a 45,000-seat stadium in two years in the floodplain of the Brazos River won’t be an easy project, said Nicholson, the facilities official.
“You will hear people saying, ‘Oh, the site is terrible,’ and that is absolutely true,” Nicholson said. “It’s the worst possible location, from a soil standpoint. And it’s on the river, so you have to go down 50 feet to build your foundation.
“But when you look at it, this is going to be an enormous structure that will be visible for miles when you’re driving into town . . . right off of I-35. What a great way to market the city and Baylor.”
Sheldon, the developer, said Baylor’s decision this week heralds “the dawn of a new era,” and he will waste no time taking advantage of it. On Friday morning, he sent a copy of an article about the regents’ decision to the head of Hyatt hotels, with a note: “Let’s build a hotel.”
“Waco generally gets to the right place,” Sheldon said. “It’s an insular and conservative community, and change comes about at a slow and methodical pace. For the city to step up and give $35 million, and Baylor to spend a quarter-billion dollars — those are going to be the transformational projects we’ve been looking for. . . . I don’t think anyone realizes the magnitude of what’s going to happen.”
Baylor University began working with Oncor in spring 2012 to prepare part of the land that abutted Brazos River and Interstate 35 to eventually move transmission lines. (Rod Aydelotte photo)
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