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Associated Press — Niranjan Shrestha/  

Deaths rise as Nepal issues more permits for Mount Everest

Birds fly as Mount Everest is seen from Namche Bajar, Solukhumbu district, Nepal. Seasoned mountaineers say the Nepal government’s failure to limit the number of climbers on Mount Everest has resulted in dangerous overcrowding and a greater number of deaths.

editor's pick
First Methodist absorbs smaller Austin Avenue Methodist in church merger
 Carl Hoover  / 

Waco’s First Methodist Church, one of the state’s largest Methodist churches, will become a little larger next month when it formally merges with downtown Waco’s Austin Avenue United Methodist Church.

Methodist leaders are calling the move a reunification, given Austin Avenue’s beginnings in 1900 as an offshoot of Fifth Street Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which later became First Methodist Episcopal Church. The original church then moved to its present location at 4901 Cobbs Drive in 1963 as First United Methodist Church.

“These two great churches were once one and are becoming one again,” First Methodist lead pastor Ryan Barnett said.

Barnett has headed the 4,300-member church for the last two years.

The reunification, officially approved by both congregations about two weeks ago, comes after some 16 months of discussions and prayer between the two churches, said Leah Hidde-Gregory, Central Texas District Superintendent for the United Methodist Church.

The combined operation will maintain a presence for Methodist worship and ministry at its Austin Avenue location in a growing downtown Waco.

“We see the same renewal of downtown Waco. It’s very exciting,” Hiddle-Gregory said. “As an annual conference, we want to make sure we are open to bringing in as many people as we can to Christ.”

First Methodist is also absorbing the Robinson Drive United Methodist Church as its South Campus effective July 1, where pastor Gabe Dominguez has been leading a street-friendly Life Church.

First Methodist averages 1,350 in weekly worship attendance, making it one of the top 100 Methodist churches in the nation and the fourth largest church in the Central Texas Conference, which stretches from Fort Worth to just east of Abilene and south to Round Rock. It has three Sunday morning worship services, two traditional and one contemporary, and a Saturday evening service. Austin Avenue UMC currently numbers 100 members, Hidde-Gregory said.

The name Austin Avenue likely will be retained in the merger in some manner, such as a campus or location name, but budgeting, operations and programming will fall under First Methodist’s umbrella, Hiddle-Gregory said.

Worship services, the church’s preschool and other ministries will continue at the Austin Avenue location, 1300 Austin Ave., for the immediate future as leaders determine how best the site can be used to serve the area.

“Austin Avenue has a long tradition of worship and ministry to its neighbors. … We don’t have a concrete plan yet, but we want to become a good neighbor and find out what the needs of the community really are,” Barnett said.

Both Barnett and Hidde-Gregory see the downtown church as a contact point in ministering to the growing number of young people and families residing in central Waco.

In upcoming assignments made by Central Texas Conference Resident Bishop Mike Lowry, Tim Jarrell, Austin Avenue’s pastor for the last six years, will move to Cogdell United Methodist Church in Waco; Steve Holston of Trinity United Methodist Church in Arlington will move to First Methodist’s Austin Avenue location; and First Methodist pastor emeritus Steve Ramsdell will return to lead First Methodist’s South Campus on Sunday mornings. Julia Castleman, Austin Avenue’s director of family ministries, will go to Ovilla United Methodist Church south of Dallas.

The merging of First Methodist with Austin Avenue comes after years of declining membership at the downtown church, once the largest in Waco, Hidde-Gregory said.

Jarrell has led the church for the last six years, during which time a consultant team suggested changes to attract younger members. More than a year ago, the churches started exploring combining their congregations in what was termed “One Church in Two Locations.”

In a farewell to his congregation printed in the church’s June newsletter, Jarrell thanks members for sharing lives and ministry during his time there. He pointed to church accomplishments during his tenure: building improvements including a new sanctuary roof, stained glass protection, organ refurbishing and building renovations; starting the Austin Avenue Preschool; and becoming “Arts Partners” with Waco Ballet and the Youth Chorus of Central Texas.

Efforts to reach Jarrell for comment were unsuccessful, and a church receptionist directed all questions about Austin Avenue and the reunification to Hiddle-Gregory.

As one of Waco’s oldest Methodist congregations, Austin Avenue boasted two Texas Historical Markers, one for the congregation and the other for the building. Former church historian Brad Willis said it was chartered in 1900 as Fifth Street Methodist Church members looked for a roomier space on the edge of downtown Waco, with the 81-member church’s first worship service held the next year.

As Waco grew, the church did as well. Dallas architect R.H. Hunt designed the current building, and it was built in 1925. A year after the 1953 tornado devastated downtown Waco, the church suffered its own trauma when its sanctuary burned. Church members opted to rebuild and add a three-story educational building rather than move. The rebuilt sanctuary welcomed a Casavant pipe organ in 1956.

In 1964, Austin Avenue United Methodist Church members underwrote a Methodist Student Center for the Wesley Foundation church at Baylor University. The church, which numbered around 2,100 members by the 1990s, also supported Meals on Wheels, the Austin Avenue Montessori School and programs for special needs children.

Willis, now a member of First Presbyterian Church, his father’s church two blocks away on Austin Avenue, shared Methodist historian Jean Hunter Traster’s observation that congregations, like individuals, have lifespans.

“The exciting thing is that the church will take on a new life,” Willis said. “This is beginning a new chapter in the history of Austin Avenue United Methodist.”

editor's pick
Local businesses boosting hourly wages as unemployment hits longtime low
 Mike Copeland  / 

Bowing to pressures from all sides — political, social and economic — employers are raising wages but still often struggling to find or keep workers.

Aggravating the struggle are jobless numbers falling to historic lows. Waco’s unemployment rate plummeted to 2.7% in April, the lowest since at least 2000, according to tracking by Amarillo-based economist Karr Ingham.

In the oil-patch communities of Midland and Odessa, where jobless rates have tumbled below 2%, some restaurants have curtailed operating hours. There are simply not enough hands on deck to chicken-fry that steak, brew that coffee or bus that table, Texas Restaurant Association attorney Kenneth Besserman said.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Besserman said. “Low unemployment is good for the economy, but there are industries that need workers and can’t find them, including hospitality and restaurants. People today have a choice in where they want to work and they often gravitate to other places.”

This month, the Target chain will raise its hourly minimum to $13, another step toward paying at least $15 an hour by late next year. It made that pledge in September 2017, upon raising its hourly minimum to $11.

Target manager on duty Christina Ferber, a seven-year veteran, said she finds it gratifying that Target seeks to fairly compensate its employees.

“And, yes, we are hiring,” Ferber said.

“Our team is Target’s greatest asset, from the newest faces to those who’ve been with us for many years,” Target chief human resources officer Melissa Kremer said in a press release. “They’re at the heart of everything we do to fulfill our purpose of bringing guests joy. It takes a diverse, high-performing and engaged team to create experiences that make guests feel welcome and inspired, and keep them coming back.”

Offering $12 or more per hour during the past holiday shopping season allowed Target to hire and train 120,000 seasonal staffers ahead of schedule, Kremer wrote. That training played a role in Target’s 3.4% increase in November and December holiday sales year-over-year, she said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Target employee Luis Amador replenishes the shelves during his shift in the Waco store. The national retailer is boosting its minimum hourly wage to $13 this month and plans to increase it to $15 next year.

Meanwhile, Sanderson Farms Inc., a major industrial employer at its poultry plant in Waco, has announced that line operators with the company at least 90 days will be paid at least $15 an hour, up from $13.05 an hour. Truck drivers will see their pay increase to a range between $20.35 and $22.90 an hour, while hourly maintenance employees will see hourly wages ranging from $19.95 to $27.45.

The Waco plant employs more than 1,100 people, according to the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.

“Sanderson Farms has always taken pride in employing the best people the workforce has to offer,” CEO Lampkin Butts said in a press release. “We recognize that if we are to continue competing for and retaining these exceptional people, our compensation package must also be among the best available.”

Cargill, which operates a poultry processing plant locally that employs about 700 according to the chamber, declined to comment on Sanderson Farms’ action or its own wages. Pilgrim’s Pride, which process poultry products and employs more than 600 locally according to the chamber, did not respond to messages seeking comment., a wage-tracking site, reports Cargill pays production workers $13.76 an hour on average, and that Pilgrim’s Pride pays $13.05.

Waco-based economist Ray Perryman said Waco is facing an issue that is becoming commonplace nationwide as the labor force tightens.

“The U.S. is at the lowest unemployment rate in about 50 years,” Perryman said by email. “There are more job openings and fewer people filing for unemployment than at any time since records have been kept. There are several reasons for this phenomenon, including a very long economic expansion, the aging of the Baby Boomers, and a slowdown on immigration. It is a nice problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.”

After a long period of stagnation, wage rates have been increasing steadily, “and that pattern is likely to continue,” he wrote.

“Employers are trying to coax retirees back into the workforce, provide more benefits and flexible schedules to accommodate the needs of employees, and employ other strategies,” Perryman said. “One strategy that has some promise is for communities and companies to support job training efforts for those whose skills have become obsolete, though even that pool is shrinking. Unlike other periods of solid growth, when Texas could attract workers from other places, there is full employment virtually everywhere now, although Texas still attracts a lot of people to its major markets.”

Besserman, the Texas Restaurant Association attorney, said he has little doubt that reduced immigration is impacting the labor pool.

“There are not as many people getting a pathway to either legalization or citizenship, so they are tending not to come out and work publicly,” Besserman said. “Without that pathway, without a process whereby people are authorized to work, we are not getting the needed influx of workers. This is a national issue, really, and many industries are struggling. Congress has not seen fit to come up with an immigration plan for decades, and the whole thing is festering. Restaurants, hospitality, seasonal, all kinds of industries can’t fill their needs from the general population already here.”

Though the housing industry continues to boom, with new subdivisions sprouting all over Greater Waco, local contractors continue to struggle with labor shortages, said Scott Bland, immediate past president of the Heart of Texas Builders Association. Chronic delays in lining up subcontractors can cost builders, and ultimately homebuyers, time and money, Bland said.

Industries rely heavily on the availability of a skilled workforce when going through the site selection process, said Kris Collins, senior vice president for economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.

“Nationally, we are seeing a trend of increased base-level wages by employers, ranging from Starbucks to Target and Walmart and beyond,” Collins said via email. “While we are seeing increases in the overall wage rates for Waco, we remain competitive with peer cities and monitor those regularly.”

Collins said labor force affordability is a factor for any employer, but so is quality of life and affordability for the workers. With that in mind, “Waco is an attractive location for businesses and individuals,” she said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Target employee Luis Amador replenishes the shelves during his shift in the Waco store. The national retailer is boosting its minimum hourly wage to $13 this month and plans to increase it to $15 next year.

Economic trends are keeping restaurateurs on their toes, said Kevin Chirafis, a manager at George’s Restaurant Bar and Catering on Hewitt Drive.

“We’re not losing people left and right, but fewer are coming in to apply for jobs,” Chirafis said. “Three or four years ago, you could hire as many as you needed. Now it’s slim pickings. Employees who don’t get exactly what they want can go somewhere else.”

Without going into great detail, Chirafis said he has tweaked George’s pay scale to keep employees happy.

Those involved in cooking, cleaning, dish washing or food preparation make $12.50 to $15 an hour, while top-notch wait staffers make $15 to $25 an hour, including tips. Those needing improvement fetch $12 to $13 an hour, he said. In part out of necessity and part as a reward, some staffers put in up to 55 hours a week, he said.

“We try to limit overtime to our best employees, those who deserve it,” Chirafis said. “Overtime has been happening more the last couple of years because we don’t have the depth of staff we really need.”

The federal minimum wage now stands at $7.25 an hour.

The average salary for an individual in Waco stands at $40,429, and the cost of living locally is 9.3% less than the national average, according to Meanwhile, places Waco’s median family income in 2017 at $45,961, which means an equal number of families made above and below that figure annually.

Employers are taking steps outside the box to retain key employees and make their contributions more valuable, said Jennifer Branch, director of existing industries and workforce at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. She is exposed to their struggle as part of the chamber’s business retention squad.

Novel efforts include creating leadership development teams to identify staffers who could handle more responsibility at higher pay, Branch said.

“They look to promoting from within and planning for succession,” she said.

Jodi Morgan, business development manager for the ManpowerGroup staffing company’s region that includes Waco, said the personnel powerhouse launched a program in recent years that encourages staffers to earn a college degree while holding down a job. Manpower pays the tab, and much of the curriculum is offered online.

“We’ve made a commitment to enroll 130,000 people this year,” Morgan said. “It’s a partnership between us and The University of Phoenix.”

She said the program is one way Manpower hopes to attract talented staffers.

editor's pick
New library programs expanding participation among adults, children
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

At a time when information is as available outside the bindings of a book as ever, the Waco-McLennan County Library System is managing to thrive and expand its reach.

Overall circulation increased 7% in the past three years, and circulation of books alone increased by 13%. After extensive renovations and an increased budget in 2016, the library set its sights on broadening its programming, updating its collection and bringing back visitors who, statistically speaking, probably stopped coming to the library during their teen years, Library Director Essy Day said.

“We don’t want that. We don’t want to lose this huge population of people and just wait until they have children to come back to us,” Day said.

Program attendance increased by about a third among children and teens, with a much larger jump among adults, she said.

Library community services supervisor Jessica Emmett said the library started collecting anecdotal feedback, informally polling visitors and the staff about what programs they would like to see.

“The libraries are here to build lifelong readers, not readers who come until they’re 10 or 11 and then stop,” Emmett said.

She said on closer inspection, the staff found their programs did not offer much for adults not accompanying children or grandchildren.

“They didn’t have little kids as their gateway back into the library, and we said, ‘This should be a space for you as well,’” Emmett said. “Plus, we have a lot of people who are moving in and new to town, and they’re not necessarily finding the library through children’s programs.”

Last April, the library launched Books and Brews, a book club for adults, as well as programming targeting seniors. The library worked with the Area Agency on Aging of the Heart of Texas and the local Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service to put together health programs covering exercise, safety and nutrition for the South Waco Library.

“People think of ‘literacy’ as just books, but really we have health, finance, everything,” Day said.

Emmett said cooking classes have been among the more popular courses, and soon East Waco Library will also house health programs.

“At the end of programs, we always say ‘Well, what else would you like to see?’ And after that one, we got lots of suggestions, which is great,” Emmett said.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

A renewed focus on programs for adults has engaged people who traditionally have not taken full advantage of the library’s offerings, Waco-McLennan County Library Director Essy Day said.

The West Waco Library is also set up to give technical support to visitors.

“You can set up an appointment with a reference librarian, and she will work one-on-one with you on any computer issues you have — how to use your tablet, how to use your iPhone, your cellphone, write resumes, she’ll help you,” Day said.

The East Waco Library already offers blood pressure monitors for checkout from the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District. More recently, the health district started teaching health classes at the east branch.

“They’re going to come in and talk about how to prevent strokes and also how to recognize them,” Emmett said. “There’s also one for heart attacks and a diabetes workshop.”

In September, the library’s outreach van will start bringing library materials to assisted living facilities and community centers.

“A lot of times, they have mobility issues and can’t get to the library, but they love to read or listen to audiobooks,” Day said. “We believe that’s going to be popular, and we’re excited to start that.”

Programming for teenagers received some attention as well. Emmett said the library reviewed its crafting section and quickly realized a lot of its offerings were out of date. But after replacing the books and adding some crafting classes, teenagers have taken to both. They also plan to add more “adulting” classes that teach teens life skills like basic banking.

Day said children’s programming, while consistently a large draw, starting receiving more updates about two years ago.

The library added a sensory program for children with special needs and a set of 10 sensory kits at the South Waco Library, designed for children on the autism spectrum. Emmett said the kits have been popular, and they plan to eventually add sets to each library location.

More storytime sessions throughout the week and on Saturdays accommodate a wider variety of work schedules, and a Lego Lab, STEAM programs for elementary students, and a Minecraft club and a Roblox club have been added at the West Waco Library.

Officials also turned their attention toward underserved populations, finding that developmentally disabled adults were often skipped over. They started working with Mosaic, a local service provider for people with intellectual disabilities.

“They bring their clients here, and we do a storytime and a life skills class, which is whatever they want us to do,” Day said. “It’s good for them, because it gets their clients out into the community, and everybody loves a good field trip.

The library started checking out museum passes in 2017, when the Mayborn Museum phased out its free Sunday admission. The library quickly added passes for the Cameron Park Zoo, Dr Pepper Museum, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, Texas Rangers Hall of Fame, the Mayborn Museum and the Waco Mammoth National Monument. Day said the passes have been checked out about 2,600 times since January.

Multiple sites across McLennan County offer free summer meals to students
 Brooke Crum  / 

School may be out for the summer, but many school cafeterias and other community sites in McLennan County will still open their doors to feed students for free.

Starting Monday, the Waco Independent School District will serve free breakfast and lunch to any child, up to age 18, at dozens of locations throughout the city.

The Waco ISD summer meals program lasts through Aug. 14, and each site has different days and hours of operation.

The Texas Hunger Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting hunger, estimates there are 2.8 million Texas students who qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch at school, but many of those students lack consistent sources of meals during the summer break.

Students who are eligible for free meals during school often do not take advantage of the summer meal programs for whatever reason, according to Texas Hunger Initiative research. In the summer of 2016, 3,761 students in the Greater Waco area ate free meals coordinated by school districts, but another 21,000 were eligible for free or reduced-price meals that school year.

Midway ISD also will participate in the summer meals program, offering free breakfast and lunch to children 18 and younger. Adults may eat at a price of $1.70 for breakfast and $3.65 for lunch.

Midway offers the meal program from June 3 through July 3 at Hewitt Elementary School, 900 Panther Way. Breakfast is served from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., and lunch is served 11 a.m. to noon.

Additionally, La Vega ISD will offer free summer meals in Bellmead, starting Monday.

Free breakfast will be served at H.P. Miles Intermediate School, 4201 Williams Road, from 7 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. Lunch will be served from 11 a.m. to noon.

La Vega ISD’s Lunch Bus Express will deliver free lunches to various locations for children under 18 Mondays through Thursdays.

Starting Monday, the Lunch Bus Express will make three daily stops:

  • 10:30-11 a.m., Maranatha Church, Ashleman and Latimer streets
  • 11:10-11:40 a.m., Brazos Village Apartments, Lake Shore Drive and Gholson Road
  • 11:50 a.m.-12:50 p.m., Brame Park, Hogan and Briarwood lanes.

More locations of free summer meal programs can be found at by typing in a ZIP code and desired date for a meal. A quick search for a 10-mile radius of the 76707 ZIP code showed 41 free meal locations.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson/  

Excavators hammer into a segment of the pedestrian bridge Thursday night.