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Associated Press — Brody Schmidt 

Baylor long snapper Ross Matiscik (46) and linebacker Jordan Williams celebrate following a touchdown in the second half.

Proponents developing TIF funding request for Cotton Belt railroad bridge conversion
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

Plans are still developing, but City Center Waco hopes to have a funding request ready by December for redevelopment of the disused Cotton Belt railroad bridge over the Brazos River.

Preliminary renderings show a partially shaded pedestrian bridge with a plaza jutting out from the bridge structure on the western bank, near the back of the Ben E. Keith building at University Parks Drive and Jackson Avenue. City Center Waco Director Megan Henderson said removing the bridge would cost $3.5 million, and repairing it would cost $4.3 million. City Center hopes to have a request for a Tax Increment Financing Zone grant ready to present by December, Henderson said.

The bridge would serve as a pedestrian connection between a retail area along Mary Avenue and East Waco, not far from a site where work for three new hotels is underway.

On the eastern bank, the bridge lands on a tract owned by developer Rick Sheldon, who donated the bridge to City Center Waco in 2016. On the western bank, it lands on vacant city-owned park land and near another tract owned by Sheldon at University Parks and Franklin Avenue that serves as a food truck court.

The Wallace Group, a local firm now known as CP&Y, prepared the preliminary renderings and remains involved in planning.

Parks and Recreation Director Jonathan Cook said the department is looking at ways of developing the green space on the western bank into an urban park. He said for that concept to work, the area needs to feel safe for pedestrians.

“I must admit, this is an area that, whenever it came up in the department, we always said ‘This is a great spot,’” Cook said. “It’s beautiful, it’s right on the river, it’s right downtown but we’ve yet to do anything with it.”

Cook said the bridge could serve as a gathering place with seating, shade, activities for kids and public art, with room for food trucks to park along Mary Avenue.

CP&Y architect and project manager David Nisbet said the elements proposed for the bridge itself are only part of the equation. It may also tie into the riverwalks on each bank.

“Really, the bridge is the connecting link between trail systems, so we see this as a larger project than just the bridge,” Nisbet said.

Henderson said Mary Avenue, which lines up with the bridge, also is being considered as a pedestrian counterpoint paralleling a Bus Rapid Transit system the city is planning for Franklin Avenue. Discussions have also been underway for years about making Mary a “festival street” suited to hosting events near where it hits University Parks along the river.

In addition to TIF funding, City Center may seek grants from the Texas Department of Transportation or the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to make pedestrian connections associated with the bridge. Basic pedestrian improvements around the bridge would cost about $1.3 million, but estimates of the cost to connect the bridge with existing trail systems have not been developed.

Nisbet said in the next few weeks, a coalition consisting of City Center Waco, Sheldon, the parks department and everyone else involved with the project will have its first meeting to start putting together a proposal and start design work in earnest.

“That’s the effort we’re going through now,” Nisbet said. “This isn’t just individual developments, this is more of a cohesive design.”

Henderson said the first step would be to remediate hazardous parts of the bridge, then either repair it or remove and replace it. Creosote timbers and lead paint on the bridge would have to be removed, and structural repairs and rust removal would be needed. She said the group would also like to widen the walkway and add railings and lighting.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of complicating factors of a historical railroad bridge going over a body of water, and with all of the environmental concerns this is not an easy restoration project,” Councilman Dillon Meek said during a presentation to the city council last week.

Meek said he feels the initial conceptual work struck the right tone for the project. He said the city should make it as easy as possible for activities to be scheduled on the bridge.

“I think if there are a couple of food trucks there, a couple of permanent spaces that people know are always going to be open, it’s going to be easier to say ‘let’s have that yoga class there,’” he said.

However, it remains unclear whether the bridge has the structural integrity to support activities or commercial operations like food trucks, Henderson said. An upcoming structural evaluation will make that determination, she said.

Councilwoman Andrea Barefield said the concept is “awesome” and the presence of retail operations or food trucks would set the bridge apart from the Suspension Bridge, which is about two blocks away.

Meek also requested the project proponents look into fencing or screening to obscure the Ben E. Keith distribution center, which butts up against the planned walkway. He said the green space and the walkway will provide a place for families to spend time together outdoors.

“I look at it more symbolically, bringing together the two sides of the river and, no pun intended, bridging the gap,” Councilman Hector Sabido said. “I just think that’s a great way to show unity between both sides of the river.”

$148M Midway ISD bond package would expand CTE programs, help students on career paths
 Brooke Crum  / 

Midway High School junior Sandra Cuenca cannot recall exactly when she decided she wanted to pursue a career in medicine and become a doctor.

Neither can junior Malaina Huff and senior Jaidyn Guzman. They were too young to remember.

But now these students are nearing graduation and entering the “real world,” prepared to attend college and follow a premedicine route that will take them to medical school. They know which colleges they want to attend, the areas of medicine they want to study and even some basic medical skills.

They know all this because the Midway Independent School District offered them career and technical education courses related to health science, including human body systems, health science theory, principles of health science and medical terminology.

The students are benefiting from taking the CTE courses because they provide them with a practical comprehension of what they are learning, rather than just a theoretical understanding, said Ashley Canuteson, Midway ISD Director of College and Career Readiness.

“So many people think CTE is designed to get kids vocationally ready for the kids that can’t go to college. That’s the old way of thinking,” Canuteson said. “CTE’s goal is that everybody is going to have a career, no matter whether you go through college to get to that or you find another way to be trained and skilled for that career.”

More than 90% of Midway High School students took at least one CTE class last year, she said. Some classes fill up so quickly the school has to turn students away.

If the $148 million bond issue election called by the school board is approved by voters Nov. 5, Midway ISD will be able to offer even more CTE classes to students.

The bond issue would devote $31.5 million to fund construction of a 58,200-square foot addition adjacent to the high school and a 9,800-square foot addition to the existing Agricultural Sciences building, according to midwayisdbond.org. It would allow the high school to expand its biomedical and computer science tracks, as well as agricultural science, engineering, robotics and visual arts.

The Midway ISD Board of Trustees unanimously voted Aug. 14 to call a Nov. 5 bond election for $148 million that would still allow a reduction in the tax rate of 1 cent per $100 of property value. Early voting beings Monday.

The board would be able to reduce the tax rate because of increases in student enrollment and taxable assessed values, according to the bond website. Housing growth and industrial business development have led to rising property values, which have increased the amount of revenue the district collects with a given rate. The increased revenues will allow new debt to be issued and still leave room for the board to lower the tax rate.

The tax rate decrease would take effect in August 2020.

A Midway ISD facility study committee recommended May 21 that the school board call a Nov. 5 bond election for $177 million to address the needs of the growing school district.

The school district of about 8,200 students is expected to surge to 10,700 in 10 years, according to the facility committee’s estimates.

Over several meetings, trustees deliberated on how to call for a bond election to address the needs of the growing school district without raising the tax rate, which already is being reduced by 7 cents per $100 of property value under the state’s new school finance reform law.

Board members settled on the $148 million bond package because it would allow the district to execute the top eight bond projects identified by the facility committee and to offer taxpayers some tax relief. The 1-cent tax rate reduction amounts to about $20 in savings a year for the average Midway ISD homeowner, Superintendent George Kazanas said.

The eight projects ranked in order of importance by the facility committee include:

  • Converting Woodgate Intermediate School into an elementary school — $13.1 million
  • Converting River Valley Intermediate School into a middle school — $43.1 million
  • Expanding the Midway High School career and technical education program — $31.5 million
  • Replacing roofs for five buildings — $3.3 million
  • Renovating Midway Middle School — $13.2 million
  • Replacing HVAC systems at three campuses — $3.7 million
  • Constructing a new elementary school — $38.5 million
  • Renovating the district’s technology center — $1.6 million.

The items that were cut from the initial bond package include expanding high school athletics locker rooms to accommodate student growth, adding a parking lot to the high school, renovating the performing arts center, and purchasing instruments, equipment and storage for the fine arts programs at the middle and high schools.

In upcoming years, the district may try to budget for the items that were cut from the bond package, Kazanas said.

Construction on the bond projects could begin as early as spring 2021, with the construction of a new elementary school in Hewitt and the conversions of River Valley and Woodgate, according to the bond website. The addition to Midway High School’s CTE program would begin in spring 2022 and be ready for the 2023-24 school year.

Sandra, Malaina and Jaidyn understand that this bond issue will not directly benefit them because they will have graduated by the time any additions would be made to the CTE program, but they want future students to benefit from a program that helped them on their paths.

“It’s really going to help them prepare,” Sandra said.

But right now, the biomedical track these three students are on is incomplete. The students have taken all the health science classes they can take or will by the time they graduate. Sure, they know how to measure bones with calipers and use those measurements to determine gender or attributes like height. They have hands-on experience changing bed sheets with a “patient” in the bed, and they know what a wound looks like as it heals, using tissue paper, red-colored Vaseline and cocoa powder to recreate a wound.

Most of these courses are geared toward students who want to become certified nursing assistants, which is not what any of these students want to do.

“Not all of us want to be nurses,” Sandra said. “We need stuff that targets what we want to do, so having more space, more funding, more classes would just help us in the future.”

She said a friend of hers in California practices sutures every day in class and has access to hospital-grade equipment to practice with, so they know what the equipment does and how to use it.

In one of Jaidyn’s classes, 14 people, including the teacher, squeezed into a former storage closet that holds a few out-dated hospital beds with “patients” in them and other medical equipment for a demonstration.

“Being in that room with 13 other people, it’s so crammed that our teacher is trying to instruct us how to do something on one of the beds while maybe six of us can watch, while the others are looking at the other bed, trying to follow,” she said.

While the girls are grateful for the knowledge they have gained and the skills they have learned, they know the district could be doing more to help them be successful after high school. They have a foundation of knowledge of the medical field that will put them ahead of many students they will meet in college and have skills they can use to work while going to school.

“The whole purpose of CTE is to touch every student and give every student employability skills but also technical skills,” Canuteson said. “It will help them be a better employee and a better contributor to society.”

Fair weather, extra day boosts HOT Fair attendance by 20 percent
 Carl Hoover  / 

A year after weather-dampened attendance caused the Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo to call on its weather insurance to cover lost revenue, the HOT fair this month enjoyed its highest attendance in years, topping 220,000 attendees over its 11-day run.

Fair officials this week tallied attendance at 223,040, up 20% over last year, when severe storms helped drive attendance down to 186,000.

They attributed the increase in part to good weather and a run extended to a second Sunday. Attendance was the highest since 2010, when more than 226,000 people passed through the gates.

Construction of a new $31.8 million expo center on the Extraco Events Center grounds caused adjustments in the 67th annual fair’s layout, parking and entrance gates. But the alterations didn’t seem to affect turnout for the fair, which ran Oct. 3-13.

“All in all, it was super great and the weather was good to us,” said fair President and CEO Wes Allison, reached by phone at the State Fair of Texas where he said he was looking for ideas for next year’s fair as well as use of the Exhibits Building under construction. “As I told my staff, ‘Maybe we need to change (the fair) every year.’ They all growled at me.”

Fair organizers used the second Sunday to introduce a new attraction, One HOT bullfight, which proved popular on the night after rodeo action ended.

“They literally never left their seats for the first hour and a half,” Allison said. “Adding that last Sunday was well worth it for us.”

Overall rodeo attendance also was strong throughout the week despite the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s calendar shift that put the Waco rodeo near the beginning of its rodeo qualification season rather than the end.

This year’s fair also had a record number of entries in the livestock show with 5,743 entries, up 167 from last year. The fair’s Academic Rodeo had 225 participants while the Creative Arts contests had 625 entries.

Allison said the exhibits building won’t be completed in time for next year’s fair, but the exterior and surrounding grounds should be ready, and that should mean less disruption for fairgoers.

Not guilty by reason of insanity ruling likely for man charged in violent killing of AT&T worker
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

A Waco man with a long history of schizophrenia and substance abuse who is charged in the 2016 stabbing and beating death of an AT&T worker confessed to the brutal crime and said he heard crows saying, “sting operation, sting operation,” a psychological report reveals.

Zachary Lamone McKee, 30, is charged with murder in the April 2016 death of Kenneth Cleveland, whose clothes were set on fire after he was stabbed more than 20 times and beaten with a shovel in an alley where he was working near the 1400 block of Barron Avenue.

McKee’s trial date is set for Oct. 28. However, it is likely a judge, not a jury, will find McKee not guilty by reason of insanity and McKee will be sent to a maximum-security mental health treatment facility based on findings by two of three mental health professionals who evaluated his mental state at the time of the incident.

Cleveland, 61, who lost his wife to heart disease two years before he was killed, left behind seven daughters, who still were reeling from their mother’s death when they lost their father. Now, they have grown more angry, confused and frustrated as McKee’s case winds its way through the criminal justice and mental health systems.

Amber Cleveland, 34, said she and her sisters plan to meet soon with the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office to discuss the case. She learned recently about the possibility that McKee could be found not guilty by reason of insanity.

“We are real confused about it,” she said. “Is this a permanent thing? Will he be hospitalized for the rest of his life? Is there a chance of him getting out? We want to know more. We have been left in the dark for so long. I think collectively we are all still really confused.

“We don’t feel like we are getting justice if he murdered my dad and now he is going to go hang out in some mental hospital. I guess that is justice on some level, but not to me.”

McKee’s attorney, Chris Bullajian, declined comment on the case.

Judge Matt Johnson of Waco’s 54th State District Court appointed three doctors to examine McKee, a rare situation prompted by conflicting opinions from the first two doctors. Those opposing opinions left the third doctor, in essence, as the tiebreaker.

According to a January report from Waco psychiatrist Dr. Steven L. Mark, McKee has a long history of schizophrenia and drug abuse. He showed signs that he knew what he had done was wrong and he took measures to try to cover up his crime. That led Mark to conclude he was sane and knew what he had done was wrong.

“During the offense, McKee hit the victim with a shovel and disposed of the shovel in a ditch,” Mark wrote in his report. “The shovel had come from the victim’s truck, as well as a pole that also came from the truck that McKee used to prod the victim.

“Sometime later, McKee tried to retrieve the shovel from the ditch, but it was no longer there. McKee also took the victim’s wallet and $60 and tossed the wallet in a trash can down the alley from the scene. These actions can speak to motive and trying to conceal objects involved in the crime.”

McKee did not know Cleveland, who worked for AT&T 43 years, Mark wrote. His decision to burn Cleveland’s clothes, which initially led Waco police to think Cleveland had been electrocuted, “may have been an attempt to destroy evidence as well,” Mark reported.

McKee said he thought the “victim was a robot or droid and that he had to attack him,” according to Mark’s report.

Mark wrote that “with reasonable medical certainty” it is his professional opinion that McKee was “sane in the legal sense.”

“He has a lengthy psychiatric history, which may have affected his judgment and ability to function at the time of the alleged offenses,” Mark wrote. “Substance abuse may have fired up his psychotic thinking at the time of the alleged offenses.”

In a report filed in July 2018 by Dr. Lee Carter, the Waco psychologist concludes McKee was legally insane at the time of the offense. After reviewing the dueling psychological opinions, Johnson appointed Austin psychiatrist Dr. Maureen Burrows to evaluate McKee. While the court has not received her report, prosecutors have told the judge Burrows shares Carter’s opinion that McKee was legally insane at the time.

Carter wrote in his report that McKee “freely broached the subject” of Cleveland’s murder and did not deny his involvement in his death.

“He reported that on the date of the index offense, ‘ravens, you know, crows, were crowing and communicating … they were crowing and speaking English… they were saying, ‘sting operation, sting operation.’ I told that to the detective. … I thought it was all a part of God’s plan…I had heard God speak out of the sky saying, ‘take bag — B-A-G..sort of like saying go ahead.’”

McKee told Carter he went into the alley and Cleveland came down from the pole where he was working.

“What I did was real stupid .. when I say it was stupid, I mean it was real stupid … even though I heard them voices, I should have known better,” Carter’s report states, quoting McKee.

McKee said he wondered if Cleveland was a police officer. He started swinging a “kitchen appliance knife” at Cleveland and stabbed him seven or eight times. Carter told him the autopsy showed Cleveland was stabbed more than 20 times, and Cleveland was surprised, according to the report.

“He clarified, ‘I was trying to do ventriloquism through the birds’ voice … he was on a ladder and the bird was talking and talking … I asked the bird if (Cleveland) was a police officer because (the bird) was so experienced … on the third time I talked to (the bird) that’s when he said, ‘this is a sting operation.’.. I didn’t know what the man was but I felt like I had to attack him,’” according to Carter’s report.

Both Mark and Carter noted in their report McKee’s criminal history, which includes misdemeanor assault, misdemeanor indecent exposure, a second-degree felony charge of manufacturing or delivery of a controlled substance and a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest.

Amber Cleveland said she and her sisters look forward to getting her father’s personal belongings back, including pictures from his cellphone that he took of their mother, text messages, phone records showing who the last person he may have talked to and other items he had on him that day.

“We have been told conflicting stories. That is what troubles us,” she said. “We have known that this sanity issue could be an option, but now we know this is the direction it is going. How is that justice? How are we supposed to sleep at night? We are all from Texas. We believe in what the Bible says about an eye for an eye. But here, if you take a life, unfortunately that is not the way it is.”

Defendants who are found not guilty by reason of insanity are sent to a state mental hospital for further evaluation. After that, the law requires the court to conduct an annual review of the defendant’s status to see if he should remain for additional treatment. Some defendants with serious mental issues are deemed too dangerous to themselves or others to ever be released.

Tom Needham, executive assistant district attorney, said he is unsure if his office will contest the not guilty by reason of insanity findings, but said it would not make much difference if two doctors have deemed him legally insane at the time of the offense.

“We will leave that to the good judgment and discretion of the judge to rule on whether he was insane or not at the time,” Needham said. “Really, I have never met this family, so I don’t know what they are looking for at this point or would be comfortable with. They are aware that if you are found not guilty by reason of insanity, you are placed in a secure prison facility where you get mental health treatment until found legally sane. That might never happen. It might turn out to be a life sentence, but they are locked up in a hospital.”