Waco City Council voted 6-0 on Tuesday to award $35 million in Tax Increment Financing Zone funds to Baylor University’s proposed new football stadium, setting the table for Baylor regents’ final decision on the stadium later this week.
A supportive crowd of about 40 cheered the vote, which Baylor officials said was critical to the proposed $250 million riverside stadium.
The council will take the second of two required votes Aug. 7, but city officials said that was a mere formality given the council’s enthusiasm for the project.
Because of the two-stage council vote, Baylor regent chairman Richard Willis said the regents’ vote this week may have to be conditional, but he is confident the stadium will be built and open by the first home game in 2014.
Council members called the stadium a long-needed catalyst for other development along the river and in the central city.
“We’ve been talking about how the development of the river corridor is our No. 1 economic development goal,” Councilwoman Toni Herbert said. “This is the project we’ve been talking about for decades. I’m much more comfortable with Baylor as our partner than someone we haven’t done business with.”
District 1 Councilman Wilbert Austin said he grew up swimming to the stadium site from his neighborhood on the Brazos River’s west bank. Now he dreams of taking a boat to the Baylor game.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine something like this would escalate across the Brazos,” said Austin, whose district includes the stadium site in East Waco.
“We’ve been talking about bringing something to District 1, and boy, did y’all bring something to District 1. It’s going to bring economic development with it. I welcome it with open arms.”
Stewart Kelly, a real estate company owner and chairman of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks the impact of the stadium will begin even before it’s built.
“This is a game-changer, a point of history we’re going to remember,” he said after the vote. “I think there are projects waiting in the wings that will be triggered because of the way they voted today.”
Economic benefits aside, Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said he can justify the $35 million contribution as an improvement in Waco’s quality of life, turning a “blighted riverfront” into a hub for community events.
In a council work session presentation Tuesday afternoon, Baylor President Ken Starr portrayed the stadium as a community events center that could host concerts, festivals and a variety of sports events year-round. He said he is excited about the public boat marina and pedestrian bridge across the Brazos River.
The stadium will “significantly expand recreational opportunities for everybody — for Waco residents and for visitors to this great community,” he said.
The $35 million comes from the coffers of the Tax Increment Financing Zone No. 1, which collects a portion of property tax revenue within the central city zone and reinvests it to spur more development.
The city of Waco, Waco Independent School District, McLennan County and McLennan Community College participate in the zone.
City officials said the TIF money will be used on public improvements, not the stadium itself. Those improvements include moving sewer lines and power lines and building the roads, bridges and walkways.
At the public hearing before the stadium vote, the council heard nearly unanimous support from speakers. Jim Hawkins, a businessman and philanthropist, compared the stadium to defining projects that Waco undertook in the 1960s and ‘70s, including the low-water dam, the convention center and MCC.
“If we hadn’t completed those projects, I’d hate to think where we’d be today,” he said. “I believe this is going to be the biggest thing that’s happened to Waco.”
The only dissenter among the speakers was Julie Sykora, a Bellmead resident who called the $35 million “a staggering amount of money” and urged the council to put the decision to a popular vote.
In other business Tuesday, the council hired Jennifer Richie as city attorney, filling a position that has been vacant since Leah Hayes resigned late last year.
Richie has been senior assistant attorney for the city of Irving since 2008, and worked eight years before that in the Dallas city attorney’s office.
The council thanked longtime assistant city attorney John Patterson for serving as acting city attorney since Hayes left.
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