Jake Russell, 24, a Baylor University graduate and real estate agent for Magnolia Homes, which has drawn national attention through HGTV’s “The Fixer Upper” and charismatic home renovators Chip and Joanna Gaines, is running to represent South Waco District 2 on the City Council. In this interview with the Trib editorial board, Russell talks of the importance of the Prosper Waco initiative in addressing the city’s chronic poverty; the current state of housing stock as the city focuses on bringing more people to live in old neighborhoods contiguous to downtown; and how the outside world views Waco. The election is May 9.
Q You’re running against a very well-established leader in South Waco who’s been on the City Council a long time. On the other hand, you come from a real estate firm associated with an extremely popular couple whose TV series is a big hit nationwide. What prompts you to run for Waco City Council?
A A lot of it comes from a love for this city. When I moved here to go to Baylor in 2008, I fell in love with this town in a matter of months. I called my parents up and said, “Guess what? I’ve found a new home.”
Q What did you like about Waco?
A I was raised in Hardin, between Beaumont and Houston in Southeast Texas. It’s a town of 700 people and one stoplight. We’d travel an hour and 20 minutes to a theater. So when I come to Waco and hear people say, “There’s nothing to do here,” it blows my mind. People are inviting here and the landscape is varied. You can go 30 miles and get all kinds of different views. You’ve got a river, Cameron Park, and I just thought, “This is such an incredible place to be.” And I made a concerted effort to get out and see the area surrounding this, whether up to West or going to the dirt races in Bellmead. I got involved with the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. When I was at Baylor we started a business. We did the screen printing of T-shirts and things like that. So that got me very involved with the town. Did a lot of work with local churches, McLennan Community College, Baylor organizations. And through that you see the people who are out and about, really making this city work.
Q It sounds like you have a great job and are working with an interesting group, but why make a bid for the City Council, particularly at this stage in life?
A The position very much matches where I’m at in my life. It’s the start of something new, there’s lots of potential in the future, there’s a lot of great things happening and I think we’re at the beginning of an incredible trajectory. That excites me. And I’m involved from a real estate perspective of actually selling Waco daily to people all over the state and country. Is that a perspective that can be a value to the council and the city?
Q But now that you’re selling homes in Waco, does it look the same as it did to you previously? I mean, you’ve seen some of the poverty. You’ve heard of the challenges facing Prosper Waco. You know something of the schools. Has all this changed the things you might focus on if you got on the City Council?
A I think community leaders shaping the Prosper Waco plan have been really good about hitting the major aspects. From a real estate perspective, jobs are always big. People want to move to an area where jobs are available, jobs are growing, and they’re the good jobs that allow for house payments. One of the things that could be of incredible value is to continue to pair businesses with education. We’ve seen interactions like that — bringing students into a welding environment and telling them that, as a junior or a senior, you need to be considering this as one of your career options. If college is for you, great. If TSTC is for you, awesome. But consider jobs like this as well. And when you get them out of the classroom and into a business where they can see the money being made and see the activity, it really opens up one’s eyes.
Q When you and I were talking on the phone last week, you mentioned something about Waco getting the most hits in real estate.
A It was an article that was put out that said Waco was the hottest market in the country and they were basing that on the page views per property on this one website. It’s a bit of an inaccurate metric. A lot of that is curiosity. We find that much of that is driven by “The Fixer Upper” TV show. But what people are seeing on that TV show and are connecting with is this concept of family, affordable housing, green space, great sunsets, water and parks. And that is just resonating with people across the country and that mix has them curious enough that they’re getting onto their laptops and clicking around. And we’re getting those phone calls.
Q Let’s talk about the overlay district for part of District 2 around Baylor University. The purpose was to ensure that new multi-residential facilities abided by certain neighborhood standards in terms of construction, landscaping and parking. Yet I know there were some mixed feelings by both developers and some homeowners.
A It was a necessary thing. I think anytime you have explosive growth in an area that has for so long been the same, you’re going to have forces that need to be addressed. Anytime you go from, say, 20 cars to 2,000 cars in a given area, you’re going to have growth issues. I think it was necessary. Once it was fully explained that this was to protect people’s homes and their streets and to try and keep this impact to a minimum, I think most people were able to understand that. I think a lot of the concern and frustration that you saw was either a misunderstanding of the plan or just a general frustration at the situation and that being the first chance for some homeowners to vent their feelings. But I think overall the overlay helped out a lot. We’ll see that in the coming years as the new construction has to abide by it. It didn’t unroll any of the problems that we had, it just keeps problems from getting worse as we move forward.
Q You’ve seen our City Council in action, our city manager. How is City Hall doing?
A I think it all works very effectively. I’ve worked with them from a couple of different perspectives — from a business owner perspective (selling furniture) through the permitting process and through sign permitting and all these things. And it wasn’t bad. The toughest part is determining who to get in touch with. Once you get in touch with that person, the process has always been a very pleasant and quick process. Nothing like some of the horror stories I hear from entrepreneurs in larger towns. When you see this level of growth in an area, you have to give some credit to the city because the city could always bungle some of that.
Q Given the growth in our city, do we have the sort of housing stock to support it?
A In their current condition, no. There is not this massive glut of immediately available homes to walk into. There are a lot of homes available and a lot of homes that need improvement, a lot of homes that need that “Fixer Upper” touch or vacant buildings that could be converted. What we need to do is assure people that when they take the chance on investing on a block, that we (as a community are) supporting that and clearing the way for three or four other families looking to invest in that block. And that way the next six blocks are more likely to change. So is there enough housing stock? Yes. Is it move-in ready? No.
Q You indicate your ability to sell Waco literally and figuratively distinguishes you from your opponent. How would this translate in terms of policy?
A I want to see more push, more excitement, more action in the engagement front, screaming from the rooftops as an advocate for this city. That will differentiate me.
Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.