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Bill Feig  

New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan tries to bat down a pass by Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) as offensive guard Zach Fulton blocks in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

Silos, restaurant part of Magnolia's lawsuit against appraisal district
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Chip and Joanna Gaines, the Waco power couple many want to blame for McLennan County’s rising property values, are suing the McLennan County Appraisal District over appraisals on six of their Magnolia properties.

The properties, including Magnolia Market at the Silos and Magnolia Table, are collectively valued on the district rolls at $17.3 million.

“The Texas Constitution requires that property not be appraised at a value greater that fair cash value and that taxation is equal and uniform,” the lawsuit states. “The properties, as appraised, are at values greater than fair cash values and are being taxed in a manner and amount that is not equal and uniform. Therefore, the values are excessive and unlawful.”

The suit was filed Friday in Waco’s 414th State District Court on behalf of Magnolia-related entities by San Antonio attorney Rahul B. Patel, who did not return phone messages left at his office Monday.

The suit does not specify how much of the appraised values are in dispute but asks the court set the correct value.

Plaintiffs involved in MCAD appeals and lawsuits typically pay the majority of their taxes on time while withholding the disputed portion until the conflicts are resolved.

The appraisals under dispute include the land and structures, not inventory, said MCAD Assistant Chief Appraiser Joe Don Bobbitt.

The properties named in the lawsuit have already been appealed to the Appraisal Review Board, a panel appointed by a local district judge to hear taxpayer protests. The panel reduced the value of several properties.

The disputed properties include:

  • Magnolia Press, the coffee shop currently under construction in a renovated building at 418 S. Eighth St. The appraisal district valued it at $1.42 million, a value that the ARB upheld. Last year, Magnolia officials protested an appraised value of $1.21 million but later withdrew the protest, records show.
  • Magnolia Market at the Silos, the nationally famous retail destination at 601 Webster Ave. Appraisers set the value at $6.85 million, which the ARB reduced to $6.4 million. Last year, the ARB reduced the appraisal from $5.46 million to $5.11 million.
  • Magnolia Table, which opened in February 2018 at the former Elite Café at 2132 S. Valley Mills Drive. The restaurant was appraised this year at $4.85 million but reduced to $4.12 million on appeal. It was appraised in 2018 at $3.63 million, a value the ARB upheld.
  • The parking lot for the Magnolia Table at 2009 Circle Road. It was appraised this year at $1.01 million, up from a 2018 value of $486,350. The ARB reduced this year’s value to $856,280.
  • A building owned Magnolia Headquarters at 6400 Imperial Drive. The ARB upheld a 2019 appraisal of $2.37 million, which the ARB kept the same. Last year, MCAD appraised the property at $2.2 million, which was lowered to $2.08 million in the protest process.
  • Magnolia Warehouse, 601 Jewell Drive. The ARB upheld a 2019 appraisal of $2.12 million. Last year, it was appraised at $2.15 million, which was reduced to $1.85 million in another settlement.

Bobbitt said lawsuits against appraisal districts come with the territory and are “kind of the cost of doing business for us.”

There have been nine new lawsuits filed against the appraisal district so far this year. MCAD currently is a defendant in 70 active lawsuits, Bobbitt said.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Baylor University mascot Bruiser cools off members of the Baylor Line during Saturday’s game.

Game day business fizzles as McLane Stadium sizzles
 Mike Copeland  / 

McLane Stadium became the world’s largest sauna this past weekend, while game-day business around the stadium was anything but hot.

Field-level temperatures soared well into three digits by the 3 p.m. kickoff at Saturday’s game between the Baylor Bears and the UT-San Antonio Roadrunners, and the meager crowd chased the shade around, with some leaving before the end.

Baylor sold more than 40,000 tickets to the game, but only a fraction of those showed up. One food vendor told the Tribune-Herald on Monday he had been given the heads up to expect a crowd half that size, and that prediction may have been generous.

“It was devastating,” said restaurateur Sammy Citrano, whose George’s Party Zone near McLane Stadium saw business wilt as would-be revelers sought relief elsewhere.

“Games at 3 o’clock are awesome in October and November,” Citrano. “They’re too hot for everybody in September. Baylor doesn’t control the situation, television does. Maybe if we keep winning, we’ll get good time slots.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Baylor fans look for shade during the Bears’ matchup with UTSA on Saturday at McLane Stadium.

Besides the heat, game attendance faced other headwinds: the $341 million Interstate 35 widening project near the stadium’s doorstep, the game’s availability on television and a non-conference opponent.

Baylor University officials had not compiled attendance estimates by Monday evening, but longtime observers said it was among the thinnest crowds in the the five-year history of the stadium, which seats 45,140.

“The announced crowd was 40,000, but obviously that’s tickets sold,” said Tribune-Herald sports editor Brice Cherry. “I haven’t heard any hard data, and it was hard to estimate, since people were ducked in the shade and hiding on the concourse. My guess was somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000.”

Once inside, many chose liquid refreshment over burgers and barbecue.

“I know we sold more water than pizza slices,” said Jeff Salazar, general manager at DoubleDave’s Pizzaworks, who dispatched a crew to McLane Stadium while he called shots and tended ovens at home base on New Road. “We did half the business we did on opening day.”

Baylor a week earlier hosted Stephen F. Austin State University at 6 p.m.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Baylor fans look for shade during the second half Saturday during the Bears’ matchup with UTSA at McLane Stadium.

Frank Hare, a Baylor-area Pizza Hut manager, read from the same menu.

“It was 103 degrees at kickoff, and a blowout as well,” said Hare, referencing Baylor’s methodical 63-14 win over UTSA that was not that close.

Hare said he witnessed concessionaires loading up leftovers when the stadium clock reached zero and what was left of the crowd departed.

He said he had adjusted his inventory beforehand, having been tipped off by a stadium food service supervisor that traffic Saturday may prove light.

Across town at George’s Restaurant, the popular diner Citrano owns on Speight Avenue, longtime catering manager Paula Owen said Saturday had its ups and downs.

The breakfast crowd was nothing to crow about, she said, but appetites picked up closer to game time, surging again when the game ended.

Easing the pain at George’s Party Zone, said Owen, was a catering gig near the stadium for about 150 UTSA alumni craving barbecue.

Baylor marks 5 years at McLane Stadium

Five years ago, the McLane Stadium era began, the glittering $266 million gem on Lake Brazos holding the promise of an economic renaissance to match the football team’s newfound success on the field. Baylor hosts Stephen F. Austin State University Saturday night, five years to the day after playing in the new stadium for the first time.

McLane Stadium, which opened in 2014, is the smallest in the Big 12, having been surpassed in size by a renovation to Texas Christian University’s Amon G. Carter Stadium.

But the stadium’s design, proximity to campus and location on Lake Brazos have been credited with boosting development in the downtown area, which has also gotten a jolt from the Magnolia Market at the Silos. It appears the Silos suffered less this weekend than the stadium.

“Brutal temperatures this weekend, no doubt,” said Magnolia publicist John Marsicano, in an email message. “Foot traffic at the Silos remains more or less unchanged — we’re still welcoming roughly 30,000 visitors each week.

“Saturday continues to be our busiest day. And historically, speaking, we do tend to experience a small uptick in foot traffic (slightly higher wait times) at Magnolia Table on game days, too,” he said, referring to Chip and Joanna Gaines’ popular restaurant on Waco’s traffic circle.

Bears burn past UTSA in 63-14 blowout

After watching the first two Baylor-UTSA games go down to the final minutes, Matt Rhule predicted a similar tight finish Saturday afternoon in the intense heat of McLane Stadium.

Demand for hotel space, especially on game-day weekends, continues to grow, as Waco’s occupancy rate hovers among the highest statewide, according to figures provided by convention publicist Carla Pendergraft.

More than 600 new hotel rooms are under construction, and about that many more have been announced in response to lodging demand, she added.

Justin Edwards, who manages the Waco Hilton downtown, said Monday that one sultry Saturday afternoon would not cool the momentum.

“It was a great weekend for us,” he said in an email. “Yes, sir, it was hot, but our loyal Baylor fans that have stayed with us for years still showed as planned. We provided complimentary bottles of water to beat the heat and all seemed excited as always. They have a lot of positive momentum this year, and we are all super excited. I haven’t spoken to any of our other hoteliers in the market to see how they did, but for us it was a win.”

The Baylor shuttle between downtown and McLane Stadium on game day afforded an air-conditioned oasis before, during and after the contest.

Spokesman Joseph Dvorsky said the shuttle took 2,170 people to Saturday’s game and gave 2,220 a ride back to their starting point, for a total of 4,390. That compares with a combined 6,675 for the Stephen F. Austin game.

“It was so stinking hot out,” said Dvorsky, assessing the difference.

Interstate 35 traffic was relatively light near McLane Stadium minutes before halftime Saturday, though Ken Roberts, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said he had no exact figures on flow. Traffic loads typically run 120,000 to 140,000 vehicles daily on I-35 through Waco, “and it can go up on weekends and on game days,” said Roberts, speaking by phone.

He said preserving access to downtown and McLane Stadium remains a TxDOT priority during the widening of I-35.

Library's new nooks put books in path of kids, travelers
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

Waco-McLennan County Public Library’s new book nooks have evolved this summer from a convenience for Waco Regional Airport customers to a teaching tool across the community.

The library this spring placed a freestanding shelf at the airport, stocked with donated books and free for anyone to borrow. Within the last month or so, library officials have expanded the concept to the Bledsoe-Miller, Dewey and South Waco community centers, as well as the Downtown Transit Terminal on Eighth Street.

“It’s nice, you know,” said Jessica Emmett, the library’s community services director. “Even if you have books at home, someone else’s books are always cooler.”

The library set up the first book nook at the request of Airport Services Director Joel Martinez, who contacted the library and asked for books for waiting flyers. Emmett said the library teamed up with the Parks and Recreation Department to find places where the books would get a lot of use.

“We have always kind of looked at different ways that we can get our library services out to people where they are,” Emmett said. “When we’re talking about people who are visiting a community center or the airport, if you’re doing some waiting, what would be a great thing for you to do?”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

The city’s first book nook is situated inside the Waco Regional Airport.

Emmett said the book nooks in the airport, transit terminal, and the South Waco Community Center are aimed at all ages. The ones in Dewey and Bledsoe are specifically meant to tie in with their after-school programs, with books aimed at elementary-age kids.

“We asked the locations, ‘Who do you anticipate using it and what kind of books do you think they’d like?’ ” Emmett said.

South Waco Community Center, which hosts a lot of adult programming, has a more all-ages selection, and the airport nook holds books for a wider range, including picture books for very young children.

“We are hoping to expand it, so we’ve been looking at some other opportunities to put these shelves out,” Emmett said. “If you want one at your place, you can always contact us and we can always figure out if that’s going to be a good fit or not.”

Emmett said the book nook at the bus station is the most prone to running empty as passengers take books and continue on their routes. She said in the community centers, books are taken less often.

“We got them out right before school started because we knew that after-school programs were starting out,” Emmett said. “We’re hoping that they can go places where people can enjoy them, like waiting rooms in doctors’ offices.”

Recreation Programmer Tracy Miles with Dewey Recreation Center said there are about 60 kids in the center’s after school program, all between the ages of 5 and 13.

“They enjoy reading the books, they enjoy the wide variety to choose from,” Miles said. “We were just excited to incorporate the books into our after-school program.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Library official Jessica Emmett attends to a book nook inside the Dewey Community Center.

At Dewey, students submit short summaries of each book they pick up and complete as part of the program.

“It’s things like that that help them full-on engage with the book instead of just reading it,” Miles said.

The nook books all come from donations. Emmett said the donated books are often fed into programs like the book nooks if the library already has copies of it.

“Citizens bring them to us and sometimes we put them in our collection, depending on whether we need them or not,” Emmett said. “Sometimes we put them in the [Friends of the Library] book sale, they go that direction.”

Emmett said the program could prove particularly useful during summer, when kids attend community center summer programs and contend with what’s known as the “summer slide,” a decline in reading ability through summer when kids may not read every day.

“They do have summer programs, so if they have the books available next summer or during spring break, definitely that could keep some kids from falling behind or losing those skills over the break,” Emmett said.

Democrats press Trump to intervene on background check bill

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are pressing President Donald Trump to intervene with Senate Republicans and demand passage of a bipartisan bill to expand background checks for gun purchases.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Trump’s “urgent, personal intervention is needed to stem the endless massacres of our fellow Americans by gunfire.”

They implored Trump in a letter released Monday to “seize this moment when your leadership and influence over Republicans in Congress on the issue of guns is so critical.” Trump must not “squander” the opportunity for meaningful action on gun violence “by acceding to NRA-backed proposals or other weak ideas that will do nothing to stop the continuing, horrific spread of gun violence,” the Democrats said.

The letter came as Congress returned to the Capitol from a six-week break, with gun violence legislation at the top of the agenda. A group of U.S. mayors, meanwhile, urged lawmakers to approve the House-passed background checks bill, which would expand background checks to cover private sales such as one that allowed a suspected west Texas gunman to purchase his weapon before killing seven people last month.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that he won’t take action on guns without Trump’s commitment to sign a bill into law.

But Trump has flip-flopped on guns, first suggesting he’d be open to background checks legislation or other measures to try to stem gun violence, only to backtrack after speaking to the National Rifle Association and others in the gun lobby. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, wants to avoid a politically uncomfortable situation of forcing Republicans to vote on gun-control bills only to have Trump reject them.

Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley, who has emerged as a leading gun-control advocate following a mass shooting that killed nine people in her city last month, said members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors are focusing on background checks as a first step to stem gun violence. A letter signed by 278 mayors from both parties urges Congress to act on the House-passed bill.

“We want an up-or-down vote on the House bill,” Whaley said in an interview before she and other mayors met with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and other officials Monday.

Whaley, a Democrat, called prevention of gun violence an issue that crosses party lines.

“We want some Republicans to do the right thing here and (vote for) something that 90 percent of the American people say makes the most sense” to prevent gun violence, she said.

Bryan Barnett, the mayor of the Rochester Hills, Michigan, and president of the mayors’ conference, said he is optimistic Congress will act. Barnett, a Republican, said background checks have strong support in his Republican-leaning city.

“As I drop my kids off at school in a Republican region and in a line of min-vans and SUVs ... nine of out of 10 of those folks don’t have a problem with background checks,” he said. “It’s not something that curtails their ability to own and operate a gun freely. It’s something they understand that we have to do as Americans because we are part of a greater society.”

McConnell has not ruled out action on gun control, but said he is waiting for Trump to state what he will sign into law before putting the issue on the Senate floor.

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of GOP leadership, also cited Trump as key to Senate action on gun control.

“The president needs to step up here and set some guidelines for what he would do,” Blunt said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Senators from both parties have been meeting privately among themselves and with the White House on possible areas of agreement.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is working with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin on a bill to expand background checks, said Trump “has a real interest in doing something in this area.” Still, Toomey said,” It’s hard to say how this will turn out.”

Democrats said the clock is ticking. At least 51 Americans were killed in mass shootings in August alone, Pelosi and Schumer said, and many others were killed “in the daily tragedy of gun violence in our communities.”

“The time for you to act is now,” they told Trump, “before more lives are lost.”