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City seeking to withhold identity of developers offered $5 million in public incentives

Waco officials are working to keep secret the identity of developers the city council has offered up to $5 million in tax incentives for an entertainment complex at the northeast corner of Interstate 35 and Highway 6.

The city has declined to turn over records that could offer more insight into who is behind 35-06 LLC, as the developer is identified in already public documents, and it is seeking an opinion from the state Office of the Attorney General on whether it has to comply with a Tribune-Herald request for the records.

The city is arguing it can withhold the information based on exceptions to the Texas Public Information Act that government entities commonly claim when dealing with private businesses, said Eric Wong, a volunteer attorney with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

It is generally difficult to look in from outside and judge the merits of exceptions a public entity is claiming, Wong said.

“We’re behind the eight ball because we don’t actually get to see what they’re saying is privileged,” he said. “So we’re always, when we’re writing responses, trying to remind the AG to keep a narrow scope on these exceptions to the extent they don’t apply.”

State records show 35-06 LLC was formed in 2013 and list Eric Wieser as manager. The address listed for Wieser appears to be for a home in Highland Park, an affluent town surrounded by Dallas.

Wieser, who did not return a request for comment, received a letter from the city asking if he would raise legal objections to the Tribune-Herald’s records request.

In its response to the open records request, the city included zoning request documents submitted to the city in 2016. The applicant for 35-06 LLC is listed as Gordon Robinson, a local developer. Robinson also did not return requests for comment.

The next move the city expects from the entertainment complex developer is an announcement of its lead tenant, likely in about a month, Assistant City Manager Bradley Ford said. The complex is slated to include a bowling alley, a movie theater with at least eight screens and laser tag, with other retail and restaurant uses. Some of those elements are required to qualify for the tax deal the city council approved in February.

The estimated $25 million development, covering 32 acres of a 352-acre site, is expected to generate $28 million in taxable revenue annually, according to city documents. That would bring $420,000 in sales tax revenue for the city, with half going back to the developers for 10 years, up to a $5 million cap.

If projections hold, developers would get about $2.14 million over the 10-year deal, the same as the city. The money going back to the developer would cover infrastructure needs that would also facilitate new construction on more of the 352-acre area.

City officials have also said they are considering creating a tax increment financing zone for the project, the type of arrangement that has provided public subsidies for many downtown business developments in recent years.

“(The agreement) just said they have to deliver a family entertainment of this size with these components,” Ford said. “It can be any of the major operators, as long as they meet those thresholds. I know the developer and (Coldwell Banker Commercial real estate agent Bland Cromwell) are certainly working on getting to a point where they can announce who that is. And the agreement has construction timelines that are pretty aggressive, so they do need to move ahead.”

Cromwell, who has worked with Robinson on other local projects, also declined to identify the developers behind the entertainment complex.

The deal and the idea of a new TIF zone have faced scrutiny from former Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. The city has worked for years toward a stated goal of reigning in sprawl, and the deal for the entertainment complex would encourage development of a greenfield site on the southern edge of city limits, Duncan has previously said.

editor's pick
Waco ISD interim superintendent Rowe to keep community engaged with students
 Brooke Crum  / 

When Hazel Rowe was 9 years old, her grandmother recruited her to teach a Sunday school class in Forney, about 40 miles east of Dallas.

Rowe said she was “conscripted” to start teaching the class but soon realized how much she enjoyed interacting with children.

That was the Waco Independent School District interim superintendent’s introduction to teaching, and she was hooked. She has been in a classroom ever since.

At 75, Rowe returned to Waco ISD after A. Marcus Nelson resigned as superintendent March 21, two weeks after his misdemeanor marijuana arrest in Robertson County. A Texas Department of Public Safety trooper stopped Nelson for a traffic violation and found less than 2 ounces of marijuana in his vehicle, according to an arrest affidavit.

The board of trustees unanimously voted to name Rowe interim superintendent March 28. Rowe previously served as interim superintendent for the district during the 2001-02 school year.

Before March 28, Rowe served on the board of trustees of the in-district charter system known as Transformation Waco. She resigned from the board after being named interim superintendent because holding both positions would be a conflict of interest.

Transformation Waco CEO Robin McDurham said in a statement that she has enjoyed working with Rowe and looks forward to continue working with her in her new job.

“Over the years that I have known Dr. Rowe, I have always been impressed by her wisdom and the incredible range of her expertise,” McDurham said. “Dr. Rowe has a deep commitment to helping students succeed, and I feel fortunate to work with her at this level.”

Rowe grew up in Forney, attending the then-small town’s segregated schools. She said Forney was small enough to realize the adage that it takes a village to raise a child.

“That was the world I knew,” she said. “Because that was the world I knew, I thought everything was great.”

The schools Rowe attended lacked adequate resources to educate all students, so community members stepped up to provide what they could. Rowe said that experience made her aware of the importance of giving students unlimited resources and opportunities, and she attributes her success at Texas Southern University to the teachers who mentored her.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Hazel Rowe talks about her new job as interim superintendent of the Waco Independent School District. The board of trustees named Rowe as interim superintendent after A. Marcus Nelson resigned March 21 in the wake of his misdemeanor marijuana possession arrest.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Texas Southern University, Rowe went on to earn a master’s degree in education administration from Tarleton State University and a doctorate in education administration from Texas A&M University.

Rowe first taught professionally as a reading instructor for at-risk high school students and adults in Clearfield, Utah. One of her students was George Foreman, the heavyweight boxing champion. She said she watched Foreman and many other students turn their lives around in the Job Corps program, a free government education and vocational training program initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Rowe next taught fourth grade at the McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Her husband, Nathaniel, served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, flitting back and forth to the Southeast Asian country. At one time, he spent a whole year in Vietnam, forcing Rowe to learn to become independent and “an advocate” for her family, she said.

Nathaniel, or Nate as friends knew him, died in October 2000. He was a Waco native, which is how Rowe landed in Central Texas.

Waco NAACP President Peaches Henry said the board of trustees ensured the momentum Waco ISD has gathered in the past year will continue to build with the appointment of Rowe as interim superintendent.

“Dr. Rowe is known and trusted by the community and will provide the stability we need right now,” Henry said in an email. “She has the experience and expertise to lead the district. I, personally, have complete confidence in Dr. Rowe and look forward to working with her to support the students of Waco ISD.”

Rowe spent 23 years working in Waco ISD schools. Her first teaching job in the district was at North Waco Elementary School as a fourth-grade teacher. She then served as assistant principal and principal of Crestview Elementary School before becoming the Waco ISD director of elementary operations.

Rowe also previously served as the district’s assistant superintendent for campus operations and associate superintendent for school improvement. After her first term as interim superintendent ended in 2002, she accepted the position of executive director of the Region 12 Education Service Center in Waco. After retiring from the center in 2011, Rowe taught current and future educators in the doctoral program at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, as well as the alternative certification program at McLennan Community College.

While the district has changed since her last stint as interim superintendent, Rowe remains committed to student success. But this time around, she said she is much less nervous to helm the district. She is working on visiting campuses and meeting students and staff.

“One of the things I want to do is reassure them that they are not left alone and that I’m going to be supportive,” Rowe said. “Going into what I call the ‘testing season,’ I think it’s important for them to see me, and I want to see them to provide encouragement and to let them know there is a safety net here so that they can do the work they need to do for the rest of the school year.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Hazel Rowe talks about her new job as interim superintendent of the Waco Independent School District. The board of trustees named Rowe as interim superintendent after A. Marcus Nelson resigned March 21 in the wake of his misdemeanor marijuana possession arrest.

Rowe’s main goal is to serve as a support system for district employees, as well as the other entities that buttress the district. She said she wants to make sure everybody stays connected.

“There is a tremendous amount of support in the city for the school district,” she said. “I want to make sure we keep those lines of communication open so that we don’t let people think they are not still needed. Because we need them.”

Following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Rowe wants to build on the success of the five Transformation Waco schools and the community involvement that Nelson fostered.

“It’s allowed us, as a community, to have a sense that we can do this, that when we stick together we can make things happen,” Rowe said. “I applaud all of those efforts in bringing us all together as a city.”

Pam Fischer, president of the Texas State Teachers Association’s Waco chapter, said Rowe has the ability to bring people together. Fischer knew Rowe when she served as interim superintendent last time.

“It made all Waco ISD employees who know her feel more comfortable and confident in this interim,” Fischer said of Rowe’s appointment last month. “She is matter-of-fact, common sense and educationally savvy.”

With such a warm reception, would Rowe consider staying on as superintendent permanently?

“No,” Rowe said, without pausing to think.

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F-35 flies over Waco as weather grounds other air show demonstrations
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Robert Jackson and his family hunkered down under the wing of a U.S. Navy C-47 to shelter them from pelting rain and lightning Saturday morning at the Heart of Texas Airshow at the Texas State Technical College airport.

As a steady rain came down, air show organizers, performers and spectators, including State Sen. Brian Birdwell, State Rep. Doc Anderson and U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, waited in the drier confines of the Col. James T. Connally Aerospace Center while holding out hope that the skies would clear enough in the afternoon to allow the show to proceed.

“We have never been to an air show before,” said Jackson, a Bryan resident who brought his wife, Patricia, son, Jacob, and daughter, Hannah, a TSTC student. “It figures, the only day you want to go to something like this, it rains. But we are troopers, we are not going to give up on it yet.”

Jackson said he and his family came to see the Air Force Thunderbirds, a precision team that flies F-16s.

The Thunderbirds did not perform Saturday, but patience by members of the crowd did have a payoff at about 4:30 p.m., organizer Debby Standefer said.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Robert Jackson, of Bryan, and his family take cover from Saturday morning’s rain under the wing of “Ready 4 Duty,” a C-47 once assigned to the U.S. Navy Atlantic Special Service Squadron and now operated by the Commemorative Air Force. Visitors who stuck around got to see the second public demonstration of an F-35, and the Heart of Texas Airshow will continue Sunday at TSTC.

Clouds lifted enough for Air Force Capt. Andrew Olson to give a demonstration in an F-35 A Lightning II, a fifth-generation fighter jet that its team members call the “latest and greatest.”

It was the jet’s second public demonstration.

“This show really allows us to showcase the capabilities of the jet, the maneuverability, the speed, the quickness of it and just the precision of what the jet can do,” said Senior Airman Alexander Cook, the F-35 demo team public affairs coordinator.

Cook said the F-35 made it from Luke Air Force Base outside Phoenix, Arizona, to Waco in 90 minutes. A commercial flight would cover the same distance in about 2½ hours, he said. At 700 mph, just shy of the speed of sound, the F-35 could make it from Waco to Dallas in about 10 minutes, he said.

The jet could make those trips considerably faster if it were stretching its legs all the way and not adhering to the prohibition on supersonic flight over the United States.

“We also call it the quarterback of the fighter jets because of all the things it can do,” Cook said.

Cook said the F-35 demonstration requires a 1,500-foot cloud ceiling.

“We are staying positive and staying hopeful for good weather,” he said. “We are excited to be here.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Visitors take cover from the rain Saturday during the Heart of Texas Airshow held at Texas State Technical College, which continues Sunday. Though some demonstrations were canceled Saturday, a state of the art F-35 gave its second public demonstration after clouds lifted later in the day.

Though the weather scuttled many plans for Saturday, it presented would-be spectators with an opportunity to meet some of the pilots, parachute team members and others behind the demonstrations, Standefer said.

Sunday’s forecast is more favorable than Saturday’s was, she said.

Organizers will honor all Saturday tickets for entry to the event Sunday, Standefer said. All Saturday tickets will only be valid as general-admission tickets Sunday, because Sunday’s reserved seating is already sold out, she said.

Other acts set for Sunday’s performance include the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Black Daggers parachute team and Greg and Ashley Shelton wing walkers. Sunday’s event runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the air show schedule for noon to 5 p.m.

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Backers of BlueCats team, stadium deal with Bellmead strike out
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

The vision of a professional baseball team called the Waco BlueCats playing in a new stadium in Bellmead may live on as a “Field of Dreams” aspiration. But as far as the city of Bellmead is concerned, no one’s building, and no one’s coming.

Yost Zakhary, Bellmead’s interim city manager, gave would-be stadium developer Mark Schuster an April 1 deadline to come up with financing for the proposed $12 million stadium, which was planned to be built on 13 acres owned by the Bellmead Economic Development Corp. at Loop 340 and Research Boulevard.

That deadline came and went this week with no action from Schuster.

“The bottom line is the planned project has come and gone, and my recommendation to the city council is to move forward and re-market the property for future commercial or industrial use,” Zakhary said. “And if they would like to come back and re-apply in the future if they get the financing, we would be happy to re-evaluate it at that time.”

Schuster, a resident of Charleston, South Carolina, did not return phone calls this week from the Tribune-Herald seeking comment for this story.

Two weeks before Bellmead’s deadline, however, he still sounded upbeat about the prospects of securing financing and moving ahead with his plans despite missing deadlines and breaking promises in cities in which he had hoped to form a league.

“We have had, it seems, one delay after another — out-of-our-control delays,” Schuster said last month. “We signed an agreement back in the fall with our lending partner. We thought that would come together at the end of the year. But here we are in March and we still don’t have a definitive financial partner. But we are still moving forward, still working. Things like this are always harder and always take longer than you think.”

Tom Hill, president of the BlueCats and Waco Sports and Entertainment, said Friday that he no longer considers himself president of the team.

“There is nothing to be president of,” he said. “If this thing gets resurrected to the point where there is viable backing, I’m sure Mark will give me a holler and let me be a part of it. But until the financing comes through, there is nothing to be president of.”

Schuster projected the Waco BlueCats would be playing in a new $12 million stadium in Bellmead by April and that his Wisconsin-based Ventura Sports Group eventually would be be adding teams from Royse City in North Texas; Joplin, Missouri, and other locations to play in what he called the Southwest League of Professional Baseball. Those agreements, and now the one in Bellmead, have fallen through, as well as the league and Schuster’s plan to renovate downtown Dallas’ Reverchon Park for league play.

Hill, a former Baylor University assistant athletics director, said he gave Schuster a couple of leads last week in his search for financing.

“What I understand is his project is still trying to press forward and trying to get resurrected when his financing comes in,” Hill said. “It is non-traditional financing, so he has to have some pretty significant meetings with some pretty significant folks. If there is no financing, there is no stadium. The folks in Bellmead have been kind and my hat is off to the council for trying to do something big in Bellmead. I wish I could be part of it and, hopefully, there will still be an opportunity.”

Zakhary said the city of Bellmead has had a few bites from commercial customers about the land and were waiting to see if it would become available if the baseball field plans did not materialize. Now, he said, the city’s economic council can direct Zakhary to start recruiting businesses that might want to move there.

“I think the baseball field would have been a great opportunity for the city, but unfortunately, it didn’t materialize,” Zachary said.

Bellmead officials proposed to spend $4 million in sales tax revenue to help Ventura develop a 3,500-seat stadium and mixed-use “baseball village.” Bellmead voters approved an increased tax on hotel stays to help pay for the stadium’s long-term maintenance. The hotel tax increase does not go into effect unless the stadium is built.

Under the terms of the proposal, the city would have owned the land but Ventura would own the “vertical improvements” — the stadium and buildings — as long as it meets its contractual obligations.

The city would have collected sales tax from the “ballpark village,” as well as property tax on equipment, but the land and buildings themselves would be exempt.

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