After years of backstage community discussion of the idea of a new downtown Waco performing arts facility, Waco City Council members are ready to start a louder conversation.
The council on Dec. 4 authorized City Manager Wiley Stem III to receive sealed proposals for consultation and planning services for new cultural facilities in the Downtown Waco Cultural District. The two-part process would first request qualifying information from prospective proposers, then proposals from those determined as qualified.
If approved, the consultant plan would examine needs in Waco’s cultural arts scene, evaluate overall community demand and resources, determine an appropriate project scale and suggest ways to realize it. The end result: “an actionable plan to deliver new cultural facilities in our Cultural District.”
The Waco arts nonprofit Creative Waco, led by Fiona Bond, has submitted a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts, requesting funds to help underwrite the cost of a project consultation, but grant announcements aren’t expected for several months.
City spokesman Larry Holze said just what type of facility might result from the consultant’s recommendation, whether a large performing arts center or a smaller multi-use facility with administrative, work and performing spaces, is far ahead in the future. “It’s entirely speculative at this point. We’ll have to wait and see,” he said, adding that this was the first council action to be taken toward such an arts project.
A performing arts space is what several council members have in mind.
“A building that would include a performing arts space would allow us to cultivate our local talent,” said District 1 councilwoman Andrea Barefield. “Citywide, we’ve proven that the arts are important here . . . Why wouldn’t there be a space for that?”
Barefield, who has a background of professional dance during her years with Stage Presence Performing Arts Studio in Houston, said her experience in working with young dancers in the community demonstrated how the arts can provide a ladder for higher achievement and self-worth. She’d like to see a performing arts space suitable for music, dance and theater. “We eagerly await what comes out of this (project),” she said.
District 4 Councilman Dillon Meek, whose district covers part of downtown, said visits to other cities have shown Waco city and business leaders the part that arts venues and facilities can play in urban development. Several city council members at a work session preceding the Dec. 4 meeting, in fact, talked about the impression that Lubbock’s Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts had when they visited it earlier in the year.
“When you put on your long-term glasses, these things pay long-term dividends,” Meek said. With investments and improvements in downtown Waco on the upswing, now is the time to plan for the future and see how public/private partnerships can realize those plans, he said.
“It’s time to have a very serious conversation on this . . . It’s time to be aggressive in terms of our growth and see what makes sense for our town,” he said. “Let’s strike while the iron is hot.”
Interest in a downtown performing arts center or theater has percolated in the Waco arts community for years. The vision was to provide adequate seating and acoustics for the Waco Symphony Orchestra; backstage space, sound and lighting for national theatrical tours and local performances; gallery space for visual arts; administrative space; and rehearsal spaces for community use.
In 2008, the Waco Symphony explored the possible conversion of the 3,675-seat Grand Masonic Lodge into a concert hall as a cheaper alternative to a new performance facility. Steve Corwin, a former WSO president with a successful track record in getting public support for the Cameron Park Zoo expansion, headed the 2008 study. But the board decided to shelve the project and focus on the symphony’s endowment, while staying put at Waco Hall.
After several seasons with sold-out productions, the Waco Civic Theatre a few years ago studied a relocation from 1517 Lake Air Drive to downtown as a way of accommodating audience growth. Director Eric Shephard and board members checked into nearly two dozen downtown properties but couldn’t find the sweet spot of an affordable property that wouldn’t require substantial renovation for theatrical use.
Hemmed in on two sides by the county-owned Extraco Events Center complex, the theater has opted for smaller building improvements in the interim, but Shephard hopes that talks the new discussions of a downtown performing arts center could open doors for the civic theater group.
Those new discussions are taking place in an evolving downtown arts landscape. The Waco Arts Alliance formed as a way for arts organizations to share ideas and information, followed by Creative Waco, a nonprofit organization designed to promote the arts, economic development and Waco’s creative community.
In 2016, the Texas Commission for the Arts approved the Downtown Waco Cultural District. This year, the Art Center of Waco began the process of moving from its location on the McLennan Community College campus to downtown, acquiring a building at 701 S. Eighth St. that will become its new home.
Art Center director Claire Sexton adds that the center’s office, currently in temporary quarters at downtown arts space Cultivate 7twelve, will move to a house, recently purchased and added to the South Eighth Street property, sometime in 2019.
Waco’s visual arts scene, although still lacking in exhibition venues, has grown in profile and public attention in recent years.
Meanwhile, Baylor University’s Waco Hall and McLennan Community College’s Ball Performing Arts Center are mentioned in long-range plans for possible renovation or replacement. Both are in demand for community events.
Meek, the Waco councilman, said the time is right to start charting Waco’s cultural arts future and assessing what facilities it may need.
“We’ve got to get that information and be smart about it . . . (but) let’s build an arts facility that we’ll be proud of,” he said. “Let’s keep moving.”
Waco’s vibrant housing market, buoyed by a strong economy and the made-for-TV magic of “Fixer Upper,” has produced plenty of winners. But it has left others behind.
Those who work with low-income people say their clients are increasingly feeling the pinch as rents rise, wages stagnate, housing assistance wait lists grow and the stock of affordable housing grows thin.
“It is nonexistent,” said Compassion Ministries executive director Jill McCall, calling affordable housing the No. 1 issue for her clients as they seek to exit homelessness.
“It’s a monumental task to help these people find affordable safe housing for them to live in when they leave here.”
Between 2010 and 2017, the number of Waco households paying more than $1,000 in rent nearly doubled from 6,111 to 11,780, according to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.
By 2017, 55.3 percent of rental households in the Waco Metropolitan Statistical Area were paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent — the threshold beyond which housing is considered to no longer be affordable by federal standards. Nationwide, the comparable figure is 46 percent.
That leaves some working families teetering on a ledge of financial insecurity.
Lifelong Waco resident Laura Pecina, 30, a certified nursing assistant at St. Catherine Center’s skilled nursing facility, made a living caring for elderly and disabled patients, until a chronic autoimmune disease left her unable to care for herself.
“I got really, really sick to the point of my husband having to change me, bathe me,” Pecina said. “I just couldn’t move.”
Without Laura’s income, Pecina’s husband Joseph, a full-time inventory specialist at Magnolia Market, struggled financially to afford the family’s $1,000 monthly rental payment, forcing the couple and their four school-aged children to move their family of six into a two-bedroom house with Pecina’s mother-in-law.
After three months in cramped quarters, the Pecina family moved into a temporary two-bedroom apartment at Compassion Ministries, a nonprofit devoted to providing transitional housing for homeless individuals and families.
“You don’t want to be called homeless but basically that’s where we were,” she said.
The apartment at Compassion has given the family time to save money and look for an affordable place to live.
Compassion Ministries was the family’s saving grace once before, she said.
She first learned of the nonprofit during a rough period when her family was living in a two-bed motel room, costing $250 a week.
That situation was the result of a house fire that displaced Pecina, her mother-in-law and their two nephews.
“It was getting very slim and things were not looking up for us,” she said. “I can say right now our car wouldn’t have fit all of us. I thank God that we didn’t have to find out what we would have done without Compassion Ministries.”
Most of Compassion Ministries’ homeless clients are fleeing domestic violence, struggling to live on one income after a divorce or individuals who lost their jobs, Compassion Ministries Case Manager Dianne Martinez said.
“The misconception about the homeless is that they’re all drug addicts, winos or lazy,” Martinez said. “That’s just not the case.”
At Compassion Ministries, unemployed clients must find a full-time job within 30 business days. Once employed, the nonprofit collects a monthly rent payment, a portion of which is returned to the client at the end of their stay to be used as a deposit on a permanent housing situation.
But, increasingly, clients are having trouble finding affordable housing to transition to after their stay at Compassion Ministries.
“What I tell people when people move out of here is that they can’t have everything they want so they have to choose,” said Barbara Bridgewater, a Compassion Ministries caseworker of 17 years. “They cannot all have affordable housing, and a safe place to live, and adequate space. They can’t. It’s very dismal.”
The need for low-income housing has outpaced what affordable housing opportunities Waco offers. Waco’s subsidized apartment complexes have a year-long wait list, she said. Bridgewater said the nonprofit advises all clients to apply for public housing as a backup.
But the Waco Housing Authority’s three public housing complexes are rented at 98 percent capacity and currently the wait list for Waco Section 8 housing is backlogged by roughly 2,600 applicants.
Waco Housing Authority CEO Milet Hopping said it can take up to three years for Section 8 wait list applicants to receive a housing voucher, which can be used at private apartment complexes or rent houses.
The City of Waco is currently in the process of vetting three firms who are interested in building tax credit housing projects in Waco, according to Galen Price, City of Waco interim housing director. Tax-credit housing, such as the Historic Lofts at Waco High in downtown and Barron’s Branch Apartments at 817 Colcord Ave., use federal financing to lower rent payments for lower-income residents.
But any new projects, if approved, wouldn’t likely come to fruition for two years, Price said.
Expensive utility deposits, credit checks and landlords with unrealistic income criteria provide additional housing hurdles, Martinez said.
“Rent has gotten incredibly high,” Martinez said. “Most places want residents to prove their income is three times the rent. We know a couple places that will work with us and do 2 or 2.5 (times the rent), but it’s difficult.”
Martinez said she believes better paying jobs and an increased minimum wage would make a significant difference to those struggling to afford the basic necessities of life.
In order for a person making minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, to secure affordable housing in Waco at 30 percent of his or her monthly earnings, that person would have to find an apartment or house for $348 a month.
“That’s supposed to be what they’re paying,” Bridgewater said. “We don’t know any place that’s doing that in town. This is someone working full time, 40 hours a week, and never missing a day, and that’s gross only. That’s not net. That’s the battle we’re up against.”
A person making $11 an hour would still be at a loss to find an affordable abode for $528 in Waco, she said.
“I am always saying this to the churches when they want to know what to do (about homelessness),” Bridgewater said. “Tell all of your employers in your church to give their folks a raise. That would help homelessness. ... But people aren’t going to do that. They’d rather give food to a food bank.”
The Pecinas are happy to have a safe, affordable home for the holidays. Laura Pecina continues to struggle with the side effects of her autoimmune disorder but she looks forward to a time when her illness is managed, when she can go back to work and her family can find a stable affordable permanent home.
In the meantime, Pecina said she wishes property owners as well as city and county officials would open their hearts and consider meaningful changes in how they treat Waco’s low-income community.
“For me and my husband, we had very rough childhoods,” Pecina said. “My credit was screwed up before I could even get to it, I didn’t even have an opportunity to have good credit because family members used my name for different things. It’s not always our fault. Just think, if this were your family what would you do? Were you always in a position to have a family home? We are all human. Life sometimes knocks you down but everyone deserves a second chance.”
Editor’s note: Today the Tribune-Herald continues its countdown of 10 of the most memorable and significant stories we’ve covered in 2018.
The city of Hewitt began the year known as a sleepy, stable suburb where few paid attention to city politics and where city council incumbents rarely feared a challenge.
But halfway into the year, Hewitt politics had turned to a food fight. Mayor Ed Passalugo and his allies on the council got hit with complaints from other council members and top city staffers, who accused them of harassment and violations of open meetings laws.
Lawsuits were threatened, the Texas Rangers launched an investigation, and elected officials lawyered up. In recent months, newly appointed Councilman Kurt Krakowian quit, followed by the departure under pressure of longtime City Attorney Charles Buenger and City Manager Adam Miles.
Meanwhile, the council hired a Fort Worth law firm to review the complaints, but so far it has not released the results of that review to the public. But starting this summer, the public began packing city council meetings, with residents demanding to know what was going on.
When the council announced it would call a November election to fill Krakowian’s seat, eight people filed for the position, leading to a runoff that swept a vocal critic of the council’s leadership into office. Erica Bruce, a toxicologist and Baylor University medical researcher, will be sworn in come January.
The storms that shook Hewitt began in May, when City Manager Adam Miles released a press release stating Mayor Ed Passalugo was facing two complaints from city employees, along with an official misconduct complaint from a council member, later revealed to be Mayor Pro Tem Steve Fortenberry.
Fortenberry alleged the mayor tried to circumvent Texas open meetings laws by polling the council members outside of a posted meeting. Passalugo has denied the complaint, which has led to a Texas Rangers investigation.
The employees who complained turned out to be Cassie Rose Muske, the parks and media coordinator who has since left her job with the city; and Belinda Kay (Katie) Allgood, the city’s managing director of administration. The complaints alleged the mayor engaged in defamation of character, gender bias, workplace bullying, and created a hostile work environment.
After her complaint, Allgood came under attack from Krakowian for her romantic relationship with Miles, which had been previously disclosed.
Employee-filed complaints were also made against council member James Vidrine, and former council member Kurt Krakowian.
City council members, originally promising transparency and a quick end to the scrutiny, have instead clammed up, at least until recently. The council this month authorized its newly hired city attorney Mike Dixon to compile a report detailing previously withheld information to help shed light on the past seven months and hopefully bring closure to the city. That report is expected to be presented at the first meeting of the new year.
Among those who voted for the creation of the report: Mayor Ed Passalugo, who suggested the results will surprise a lot of people and clear his name.
“I tell everybody just think what (President Donald) Trump’s going through,” Passalugo said. “I’m proud of what I’ve done and if people aren’t, well, next election vote me out.”
HOUSTON — An 8-year-old boy from Guatemala died in government custody in New Mexico early Tuesday, U.S. immigration authorities said, marking the second death of an immigrant child in detention this month.
The death came during an ongoing dispute over border security and with a partial government shutdown underway over President Donald Trump’s request for border wall funding.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the boy — identified by the Guatemalan consul in Phoenix as Felipe Gómez Alonzo — had shown “signs of potential illness” on Monday and was taken with his father to a hospital in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He was diagnosed with a cold and a fever, prescribed amoxicillin and ibuprofen, and released Monday afternoon after being held 90 minutes for observation, the agency said.
The boy was returned to the hospital Monday evening with nausea and vomiting and died there just after midnight, CBP said.
CBP has not yet confirmed when or where the father and son entered the United States or how long they were detained, saying only in its statement that the boy had been “previously apprehended” by its agents.
The agency said the cause of the boy’s death has not been determined and that it has notified the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general and the Guatemalan government.
A 7-year-old Guatemalan girl died earlier this month after being apprehended by border agents in New Mexico. The body of the girl, Jakelin Caal, was returned to her family’s remote village Monday for burial Tuesday.
The White House referred questions about the latest case to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, CBP’s parent agency. CBP officers and the Border Patrol remain on the job despite the shutdown.
According to Guatemala’s foreign ministry, the father and son entered the U.S. at El Paso on Dec. 18, then were taken to the Border Patrol’s Alamogordo station Sunday. Alamogordo is about 90 miles from El Paso.
Oscar Padilla, the Guatemalan consul in Phoenix, said he was told by the boy’s father in a telephone interview that the two had been traveling from their home in Nentón, a village about 280 miles from Guatemala City. They were planning to go to Johnson City, Tennessee.
The consul identified the father as 47-year-old Agustin Gomez, and said he remains in U.S. Border Patrol custody.
CBP typically detains immigrants for no more than a few days when they cross the border before either releasing them or turning them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for longer-term detention. Agency guidelines say immigrants generally shouldn’t be detained for more than 72 hours in CBP holding facilities, which are usually smaller and have fewer services than ICE’s detention centers.
Parents and children together are almost always released quickly due to limited space in ICE’s family detention facilities.
A CBP spokesman on Tuesday did not respond to questions about the ministry’s statement.
The hospital, the Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center, declined to comment, citing privacy regulations.
CBP promised “an independent and thorough review of the circumstances.”
The Guatemalan foreign ministry called for an investigation “in accordance with due process.”
Democratic members of Congress and immigration advocates sharply criticized CBP’s handling of Jakelin’s death and questioned whether border agents could have prevented it by spotting symptoms of distress or calling for an evacuation by air ambulance sooner.
CBP has said that it took several hours to transport Jakelin and her father from a remote Border Patrol facility to a larger station, where her temperature was measured at 105.7 degrees Fahrenheit . Emergency medical technicians had to revive her twice. She was ultimately flown to an El Paso hospital, where she died the next day.
Large numbers of Guatemalan families have been arriving in recent weeks in New Mexico, often in remote and dangerous parts of the desert. Jakelin and her father were with 161 other people when they were apprehended in Antelope Wells, about 230 miles southwest of Alamogordo.
CBP announced new notification procedures in response to Jakelin’s death, which was not revealed until several days later.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican whose district along the U.S.-Mexico border includes Alamogordo, did not respond to messages Tuesday.
Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat who will represent the district starting in January, called for a thorough and transparent investigation into the children’s deaths and more medical resources along the border.
“This is inexcusable,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “Instead of immediately acting to keep children and all of us safe along our border, this administration forced a government shutdown over a wall.”
Felipe Gonzalez, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said Monday that the U.S. government’s detention of children due to their immigration status violated international law.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press journalists Mary Hudetz in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Sonia Perez D. in Guatemala City; and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that parts of the federal government will stay closed until Democrats agree to put up more walls along the U.S.-Mexico border to deter criminal elements. He said he’s open to calling the wall something else as long as he ends up with an actual wall.
In a Christmas Day appearance in the Oval Office, Trump issued a lengthy defense of his desire for a wall, saying it’s the only way to stop drugs and human traffickers from entering the country. In a nod to the political stakes he’s facing, Trump said he wants the wall by “election time” in 2020.
The promise of a border wall was central to Trump’s presidential campaign.
“I can’t tell you when the government’s going to be open. I can tell you it’s not going to be open until we have a wall or fence, whatever they’d like to call it,” Trump said, referring to Democrats who staunchly oppose walling off the border.
“I’ll call it whatever they want, but it’s all the same thing,” he told reporters after participating in a holiday video conference with representatives from all five branches of the military stationed in Alaska, Bahrain, Guam and Qatar.
Trump argued that drug flows and human trafficking can only be stopped by a wall.
“We can’t do it without a barrier. We can’t do it without a wall,” he said. “The only way you’re going to do it is to have a physical barrier, meaning a wall. And if you don’t have that then we’re just not opening” the government.
Democrats oppose spending money on a wall, preferring instead to pump the dollars into fencing, technology and other means of controlling access to the border. Trump argued that Democrats oppose a wall only because he is for one.
The stalemate over how much to spend and how to spend it caused the partial government shutdown that began Saturday following a lapse in funding for departments and agencies that make up about 25 percent of the government.
Some 800,000 government workers are affected. Many are on the job but must wait until after the shutdown to be paid again.
Trump claimed that many of these workers “have said to me and communicated, ‘stay out until you get the funding for the wall.’ These federal workers want the wall. The only one that doesn’t want the wall are the Democrats.”
Trump didn’t say how he’s hearing from federal workers, excluding those he appointed to their jobs or who work with him in the White House. Many rank-and-file workers have gone to social media with stories of the financial hardship they expect to face due to the shutdown, now in its fourth day.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leaders of Congress, said Trump “wanted the shutdown, but he seems not to know how to get himself out it.” Trump had said he’d be “proud” to shut down the government in a fight over the wall.
He also had said Mexico would pay for the wall. Mexico has refused.
Trump followed up on a Monday tweet in which he said he “just gave out a 115 mile long contract for another large section of the Wall in Texas.” Neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to follow-up questions, despite repeated requests.
The reference to 115 miles was unclear. Trump may have been referring to 33 miles of construction in the Rio Grande Valley that is set to begin in February, part of a total of 84 miles that Congress funded in March, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Asked who received the contract, Trump replied: “Different people, different people.”
He did say he envisions a wall so tall, “like a three-story building,” that only an Olympic champion would be able to scale it. He also compared Democrats’ treatment of him over the wall to their defense of James Comey after Trump fired him as FBI director.
“It’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country but, other than that, I wish everybody a very merry Christmas,” he said.