Waco and McLennan County have problems to address, but they also have successes to celebrate, including the creation of a countywide rural transit system and an animal shelter on the verge of achieving no-kill status, even as a $2.5 million overhaul awaits.
McLennan County Judge Scott Felton and Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. discussed the highs and lows of their respective entities during a “state of the city and county” program Thursday hosted by the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.
About 100 community and business leaders attended the event held in the Waco Hilton.
Duncan said industrial prospects and existing businesses considering expansion frequently mention the importance of transportation in running a successful operation.
Felton, meanwhile, mentioned a prospect “that we didn’t get” who expressed surprise that the city and county had no rural transportation system that would accommodate trips to work sites.
“We vowed that wouldn’t happen again,” Felton said.
Beginning July 1, he said, any county residents outside of Waco Transit’s fixed route system could arrange for a McLennan County Rural Transit District van to pick them up and take them anywhere within a six-county region. It is available not only in rural areas but in suburban areas such as Bellmead, China Spring and Woodway.
Local leaders, including Felton, have said this is the first step in creating a full-service, countywide transit system, and they hope within the next year or two to run buses on fixed routes to communities outside Waco and its suburbs.
Duncan described the city-run animal shelter on Circle Road as a “regional” facility that is eliminating the need to euthanize two of every three dogs and cats brought there, which it was doing when the city took control about two years ago.
He said efforts to promote the spaying and neutering of animals are having an impact. Next up is a planned $2.5 million renovation to make “a cleaner, healthier shelter,” said Duncan, who noted that a controlled entrance that makes it easier to process animals entering and leaving the shelter already has been installed and is working well.
Other success stories of note, said Duncan, is President Barack Obama’s executive order designating Waco’s Mammoth Site as a national monument; the opening of a skate park on Waco Drive; and the growing popularity of the Downtown Waco Farmers Market.
“I contend (the market) is one of the best in the state, and typically has 35 to 40 vendors each week,” Duncan said.
He also mentioned the phenomenon that the television show “Fixer Upper” has become, making HGTV stars of Chip and Joanna Gaines. He said fans travel hundreds of miles to visit Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Market store on Bosque Boulevard, where she sells items showcased in her family’s farmhouse and in homes the couple remodel for the cameras.
The mayor also urged those attending Baylor University football games to patronize downtown merchants who stay open on Saturdays to enrich the game-day experience.
Turning to meatier topics, Duncan discussed Waco’s new 25-year comprehensive plan, called “City Plan,” that will guide decisions on everything from economic development to environment to infrastructure and land use.
He said the plan seeks to reverse the trend of new development taking place outside Waco’s core. He said since 1995, 54 percent of that development has sprung up just outside the city, in its extraterritorial jurisdiction, while 24 percent took shape in neighboring municipalities. That meant roughly 21 percent took place within Waco’s city limits.
“Waco is being hollowed out, and that trend is not sustainable,” Duncan said. He said 67 percent of the jobs in Waco are held by people who do not live in the city. Part of the solution, he said, is making living in Waco more attractive.
That includes improving the educational environment, “because you can’t have healthy neighborhoods without healthy schools.”
Waco also must improve its wastewater infrastructure and the condition of its streets, the mayor said. Waco City Council has voted to allocate $5 million in surplus funds to street repair and maintenance.
“That’s the most we can get done in one year using all local contractors, which we intend to do,” Duncan said.
Felton said the county has designated excess funds to pay off $2.5 million in certificates of obligation; $1.4 million in short-term debt; $2 million in debt related to employee retirement; and the purchase of vehicles priced at $429,000.
“This improves our cash flow by $500,000 a year, and puts us closer to operating on a cash basis,” Felton said.
The county, he said, faces expenditures of $17.7 million, $4.4 million and $10 million to widen and/or improve the shoulders of Speegleville Road, Surrey Ridge Lane and Chapel Road, respectively, in the near future.
He said the county probably will spend more than $1 million to modify buildings that do not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act in the wake of a federal audit in 2011 and a report prepared in 2014.