I’m from a town that has had a terrible national reputation marked by disaster and scandal, yet is now enjoying a rebirth. I don’t mean Waco, though — I’m originally from Detroit. And I suspect that Waco could borrow at least one great idea from the Motor City.
Earlier this month, I attended the “Detroit Homecoming,” an event conjured up by city leaders, corporations and foundations targeted at the huge diaspora of people who grew up in Detroit but fled in the face of economic travail, racial conflict and a profound lack of opportunity. I joined a few hundred invited CEOs, financiers, artists and others for three days of meals, tours and presentations, all aimed at pulling us homeward in some way.
We met in an old sock factory that is now the headquarters of an auto racing team and had dinner with native Detroiter Lily Tomlin in the scraped-out core of the old Michigan Central Depot, a near-twin to New York’s Grand Central Station. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan talked about what was going right in the city and Mary Wilson of the Supremes sang for us. It was quite a show.
The whole thing was a way of saying that Detroit wants its people back — both their talent and their capital. It is an idea that Waco might want to consider.
Certainly, Detroit’s problems have been far larger than Waco’s. The resulting loss of population in the city of Detroit has been stunning. When I left Michigan for Waco and my new job at Baylor University in 2000, Detroit’s population was more than 945,000. Just 16 years later, in 2016, it had dropped to 672,795. There were good reasons for those people, of all races and ages, to leave. Poverty, bad schools, dangerous streets — Detroit had it all. And to be certain, a lot of those problems are still there.
What’s different is palpable, though. The once-barren downtown is full of life, day and night, and construction sites abound. For those of us expatriates at the Homecoming who had not explored downtown Detroit in a while, it was shocking to see. Young people drawn from around the country to jobs in finance, retail and even fashion are snapping up new apartments. New restaurants are cropping up on blocks formerly full of boarded-up ruins. Out for a walk on Saturday morning I watched a flood of bicyclists whir by. And an old favorite spot, the Eastern Market, was bursting at the seams with activity.
On a smaller scale (and from a less depressing nadir), Waco is enjoying a parallel resurgence. To leverage those gains, the city might try wooing its own expatriates to come back and invest in what is happening. People have left Baylor and Central Texas and headed not only to Dallas, Austin and Houston but to New York and Los Angeles. Many of them are at a point in their lives where they have the talent and capital that any community would covet. They also have a soft spot for Waco and must be intrigued by what has happened there the last few years. So go ahead, Waco — invite them back and shock them.
There is a lot to be gained by the effort. One of the Detroit Homecoming attendees, fashion executive and consultant Jeffry Aronsson, has committed to shift his business to Detroit and help the city become a hub of that industry — an effort that is only helped by Detroit’s reputation as the “New Brooklyn.” I found myself surrounded, too, by people from New York and Chicago looking for real estate opportunities that could bring them in closer contact with their hometown. Money and minds are heading back to Motown.
Waco has the leadership and the locations to have its own Homecoming. Magnolia Market at the Silos (and all the attendant publicity that comes with HGTV’s popular “Fixer Upper” featuring local first couple and home restoration experts Chip and Joanna Gaines and regularly showcasing the town), the grandly renovated Hippodrome, the rebuilding of Elm Avenue, the state-of-the-art, riverfront athletic stadium at Baylor, the bustling activity both day and night along once-moribund Austin Avenue — in short, a wealth of new and remade places stand ready to show off, a lot to be proud of.
As city leaders acknowledge, “Fixer Upper” will not be on television forever and it’s crucial to continue the economic momentum that Waco — through a lot of hard work and resourcefulness — has achieved. One key might be to re-engage those who have wandered off. There is, after all, no emotional hook that rests so deep as the notion of home.