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Rod Aydelotte  

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Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown (6) breaks up a pass for Baylor wide receiver Chris Platt (14) in the second half.

Trump: Mattis out as of Jan. 1; deputy to be acting chief

WASHINGTON — Irritated with the criticism and fallout from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ resignation, President Donald Trump on Sunday pushed the Pentagon chief out the door two months earlier than planned, an acrimonious end to a tense relationship that had been eroding in recent months.

In a series of tweets, Trump appeared to question why he had put Mattis in his Cabinet in the first place, and said deputy defense secretary Patrick Shanahan will take over as acting secretary on Jan. 1 to cover the accelerated departure.

The sudden change strips Mattis of any chance to further frame national security policy or smooth rattled relations with allies through the originally planned transition at the end of February. And it reflects White House displeasure with the retired Marine Corps general’s blistering resignation letter, which he delivered to Trump on Thursday.

Mattis resigned in protest over Trump’s decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria. U.S. officials, however, said that the reaction to his decision to leave — including the shock and dismay expressed on Capitol Hill — annoyed Trump and likely led to Mattis leaving earlier than planned.

“When President Obama ingloriously fired Jim Mattis, I gave him a second chance. Some thought I shouldn’t, I thought I should,” Trump tweeted Saturday, foreshadowing his displeasure and the Sunday announcement. He also fumed over the media coverage of his Syria withdrawal order, suggesting he should be popular for bringing troops home.

“With me, hit hard instead by the Fake News Media. Crazy!” Trump tweeted.

A White House official said Trump decided Mattis should leave the administration earlier than planned to avoid a drawn-out transition when someone on hand whom they consider a qualified deputy capable of running the Pentagon in an acting capacity. The official, who asked not to be identified publicly discussing personnel matters, said it made sense to have a quicker transition and not create problems.

The official said Mattis was notified of Trump’s wishes prior to today’s tweeted announcement.

Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino, a spokesman for Shanahan, said the former Boeing Co. executive will accept the appointment as acting secretary.

“Deputy Secretary will continue to serve as directed by the president, and the Department of Defense will remain focused on the defense of the nation,” Buccino said on Sunday.

It is unusual for the Pentagon to have an acting secretary of defense. Historically when a secretary has resigned, he has stayed on until a successor is confirmed. For example, when Chuck Hagel was told to resign in November 2014, he stayed in office until Ash Carter was confirmed the following February.

While Mattis’ resignation followed Trump’s announcement that he would soon pull all of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, officials said that the decision was the result of an accumulation of disagreements.

In a stunning resignation letter, Mattis made clear he did not see eye to eye with a president who has expressed disdain for NATO and doubts about keeping troops in Asia. Mattis was also unhappy with Trump’s order to develop plans to pull out up to half of the 14,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Earlier Sunday, Trump’s acting chief of staff said that Trump had known for “quite some time now” that he and Mattis “did not share some of the same philosophies ... have the same world view.”

Mick Mulvaney told ABC’s “This Week” that the president and his defense chief “just could never get on the same page” on Syria, adding that Trump had said since his presidential campaign that “he wanted to get out of Syria.” Mulvaney said the president “is entitled to have a secretary of defense who is committed to that same end.”

Asked whether Trump wanted a Pentagon leader willing to challenge him or someone in lock step with his views, Mulvaney said “a little bit of both.”

“I’ve encouraged him to find people who have some overlap with him but don’t see the world in lockstep with him,” Mulvaney said.

The Pentagon on Sunday would only say that Mattis serves at the pleasure of the president.

Other officials said it wasn’t clear whether Mattis had spoken directly to Trump about the accelerated departure. Mattis had been at work on Friday, and defense officials had insisted he was planning to stay through February, when he would attend a NATO defense ministers meeting.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined leading Republicans on foreign affairs in urging Trump to reconsider his decision to withdraw American forces from Syria.

“We believe that such action at this time is a premature and costly mistake that not only threatens the safety and security of the United States but also emboldens” the Islamic State group, President Bashar Assad’s government, Iran and Russia, according to the letter, signed by McConnell and eight other senators, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who organized it.

They asked Trump to “not make any final decision for 90 days to allow time to adequately study the impacts of this decision on our partners, our allies and the re-emergence of ISIS and other terror groups, to ensure our nation’s strategic interests are secured.”

But Mulvaney, asked on ABC whether there was any chance the president might change his mind on Syria decision, said: “No. I think the president has told people from the very beginning that he doesn’t want us to stay in Syria forever. You’re seeing the end result now of two years’ worth of work. But keep in mind it’s not unusual for a president to lose members of the Cabinet over these types of disagreements.”

Just after tweeting the announcement about Shanahan, Trump said he had had “a long and productive call” with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump said they discussed IS, “our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area. After many years they are coming home.”

Shanahan, a longtime Boeing Co. executive, was nominated for the deputy job in early 2017.

He moved up through the management ranks at Boeing over a career that began in 1986. The Puget Sound Business Journal called him a Boeing “fix-it” man in a March 2016 report. He oversaw the company’s global supply chain strategies and use of advanced manufacturing technologies. Shanahan was central to getting the 787 Dreamliner on track after production problems in the program’s early years, the report said.

Hotel building binge in Waco continues
 Mike Copeland  / 

The number 1,268 keeps rolling around in the mind of Carla Pendergraft, director of marketing for the Waco Convention Center.

It reflects rooms that could become available the next three years if hotels planned, permitted or under construction come to pass.

To Pendergraft, it also represents more visits to the Cameron Park Zoo, the Dr Pepper Museum or Magnolia Market, packed sporting events, brimming restaurants and weekend getaways for travelers sampling what Greater Waco has to offer.

Last week, developers announced plans for a full-service Embassy Suites on South Second Street, behind the RiverSquare collection of shops and restaurants and two blocks from the Waco Convention Center.

Pendergraft has added the $35 million, 168-room project to her list. It would have structured parking, 15,000 square feet of meeting space, ballroom space, a full restaurant and a full bar, according to the developers, Waco natives Birju and Harsh Patel, with BH Hospitality Management LLC.

The Downtown 301 Event Center will be torn down to accommodate the Embassy Suites, and construction is set to start next year.

“That was an exciting announcement,” Pendergraft said. “With Embassy Suites, the Hilton, the Courtyard by Marriott and the three hotels planned across the river, we are in an excellent position to move to that next level of convention and meeting business. I am confident we will attract larger clients, and convention planners love to have everything in one hotel.

“Now, we have two hotels near the center. Soon we will have six total, and we should keep this place more heavily booked.”

She has grown weary of losing hotel stays to Temple and Hillsboro when special events tax local hospitality resources beyond their capacity. Hotel stays typically produce dining, entertainment and shopping activities, she said.

Developer Kenny Bhakta, who owns Hotel Indigo downtown, has announced plans to place three four-story hotels on land roughly bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Bridge Street and Taylor Street in East Waco, all within walking distance of the Waco Convention Center complex.

Construction on the $21.7 million project is scheduled to start early next year and conclude in 2022. Plans call for 361 rooms spread over three brands: Cambria Suites, Even Hotel and Holiday Inn Express.

Bhakta also will place a 105-room extended-stay Element Hotel by Marriott on LaSalle Avenue, near Waco’s traffic circle, said Jacquelyn Baumann, director of sales for Hotel Indigo and a spokesperson for Bhakta’s KB Hotels LLC.

The Element property does not appear in Pendergraft’s calculations.

“We will go forward with our four hotels, won’t alter our plans, but Waco is becoming a very competitive market, especially considering all the hotels projected. It would not surprise me if other hotel developers, those not as far along as we are, will reconsider where they stand,” Baumann said. “There definitely is going to be a shift in the market, and some hoteliers may take a second look at the feasibility of placing another property here.”

Still, Waco has much to recommend it to lodging planners.

Waco’s overall occupancy rate was listed as tops in the state during the second quarter this year, at 82.7 percent, according to Pendergraft.

It has consistently placed in the top five the past two years, running neck-and-neck with oil-booming Midland, the dynamic Austin-Round Rock area and coastal cities whose residents sought refuge after Hurricane Harvey, said Kris Collins, senior vice president for economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, who tracks lodging trends.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

A La Quinta opened in mid-October between 10th and 11th streets near Interstate 35. Several other new hotels are under construction or in the planning phase.

Raju Patel, who opened a new 118-room La Quinta Del Sol near South 11th Street and Interstate 35 in mid-October, said the proliferation of new lodging establishments concerns him. He also operates a La Quinta on Woodway Drive, a Best Western in Bellmead and Candlewood Suites on New Road.

“My occupancy rate is less than 20 percent at my new property,” he said. “Things have been pretty slow.”

Asked if Greater Waco is becoming overbuilt, he replied, “I think so.”

He said in his opinion, adding more than two new properties per year is flirting with saturation and reduced occupancy rates.

He said he wonders how long Magnolia Market at the Silos will remain a tourist draw now that Chip and Joanna Gaineses’ hit HGTV show “Fixer Upper” has left the airwaves, except in re-runs, and he would like to see efforts to schedule more events in December and January when lodging activity wanes.

The Gaineses’ announcement last month that they are negotiating with Discovery Inc., the parent company of HGTV, to create their own TV network could offset one of those concerns.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Work continues on a portion of a new Aloft hotel at 11th Street and Cleveland Avenue, next to a newly opened La Quinta. Several other hotels are under construction or in the planning stages.

A Springhill Suites is under construction near Second Street and Interstate 35, an Aloft Hotel is going up at 900 S. 11th St., next to Patel’s new La Quinta, and a Hyatt Place is under construction near the Bagby Avenue entrance to Central Texas Marketplace, with an opening planned next year.

And Mississippi-based Heritage Hospitality Group has secured permits to build a Residence Inn and a Tru by Hilton in the 2400 block of Marketplace Drive, near the Hyatt Place, a new retail strip and a Baylor Scott & White Health clinic.

Also, a 111-room Hilton Garden Inn opened in September in Legends Crossing, and an 85-unit TownePlace Suites is going up in Lacy Lakeview.

A 32-room hotel, meanwhile, is part of a Czech-inspired mixed-use development announced last week that will include a brewery, restaurant and bakery on South Eighth Street in Waco’s inner city.

Bland Cromwell, a commercial marketing specialist with Coldwell Banker Jim Stewart Realtors, said he believes there is demand for more.

He said he continues to work for clients who believe Waco could accommodate another high-end full-service property. He represents Clifton and Gordon Robinson, who own the Olmsted-Kirk Paper Co. building in the 300 block of South Sixth Street and have cleared a sizable tract adjacent to it. He said he could not discuss details of what might land there, but he acknowledged the Robinsons would be receptive to overtures from a hotel developer.

The site is just beyond the back fence of Magnolia Market at the Silos, near where several food trucks and trailers do business.

He said a lodging establishment with a twist, a property offering a unique service, would find itself right at home in the burgeoning Waco market.

Reinforcements have also arrived in the push to promote Waco’s convention and tourist traffic, with the introduction last week of Todd Bertka, an industry veteran and transplant from Virginia hired as director of the Waco Convention Center and Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau.

He said the facilities to meet the needs of “the meeting business” are critical to Waco being a year-round destination.

Full-service Embassy Suites headed for downtown Waco

Developers are seeking more than $4.9 million in downtown incentives to bring a full-service Embassy Suites to South Second Street, behind the RiverSquare restaurants and two blocks from the Waco Convention Center.

Top 10 stories of 2018: Homeowners flock to protest property values
 Mike Copeland  / 

Editor’s note: Today the Tribune-Herald continues its countdown of 10 of the most memorable and significant stories we covered in 2018.

With property tax appraisals up sharply over last year, property owners flooded the McLennan County Appraisal District with protests. As the deadline approached, the district had received more than 5,400 protests, compared to fewer than 1,000 at that point the year before.

Some lamented the “Fixer Upper” impact, believing the hit TV show starring Chip and Joanna Gaines cast Waco in such a positive light that fans could not resist visiting, and that enough paid a premium to put down roots that they drove up home prices. Whatever the case, some owners of older homes in the central city reported skyrocketing values they believed defied credibility.

Homeowners seemingly are following the lead of downtown merchants and property owners who were up in arms in 2017 over what they considered inflated values that threatened the inner-city renaissance.

After this year’s protest dust settled, the taxable value of homes in the county was up more than 9 percent compared to last year, though some of that increase is attributable to new construction rather than appraisal bumps.

MCAD appraisers said their hands are tied by state law. They have to set appraisals at market value, regardless of whether they think market value is fair.

Local real estate agents indeed have reported receiving multiple offers on properties within days, even hours of their arrival on the market, sometimes even before they appear on the Waco Multiple Listing Service.

Still, protests can be effective. Mike Stone, executive director of Waco Community Development, told the Tribune-Herald he was assisting with about 50 protests this year and that in past years, every protest he was familiar with resulted in at least some reduction in value.

In one extreme example, Phillip and Barbara Bridgewater, who own a home in the 1800 block of Morrow Avenue, saw their preliminary appraisal more than double, from $140,000 to $331,410. They bought the place for $80,000 in the late 1990s.

After the Bridgewaters filed a protest, the appraisal was cut to $170,000, still enough to add about $800 to their annual tax bill.

Karr Ingham, a West Texas economist who tracks local economic trends, has watched sales prices for homes in Greater Waco rise to record levels.

In October, for example, the average sales price of homes in the area reached $210,815, a 6.2 percent increase from a year earlier. Through October, home sales had soared to almost 2,500 transactions, an increase over last year approaching 9 percent, Ingham reported in his Greater Waco Economic Index.

In the index’s base year of 2000, the average home sales price was $98,677.

Mart fire chief's home destroyed in Sunday morning blaze

Mart Volunteer Fire Chief Jerry “Bud” Pavelka lost his home two days before Christmas, after fire overtook about half of his home Sunday morning, Mart Police Chief Paul Cardenas said.

Emergency responders were called to the 700 block of Calvery Eskew Road shortly before 7:45 a.m.

Cardenas said Pavelka and his wife, the only two people in the home, were able to escape uninjured.

When fire crews arrived, about 50 percent of the home was engulfed in flames, Cardenas said.

Firefighters extinguished the fire, reportedly started by a floor heater in the rear of the home, Cardenas said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. A family pet, a cat, died in the fire, authorities said.

Mart Mayor Len Williams, the McLennan County 100 Club and other first responders are organizing efforts to assist the Pavelka family.

Cardenas said McLennan County 100 Club Board President Link Harris is expected to establish an account at The First National Bank of Central Texas on Monday for donations to benefit the fire chief and his family.

The account will be managed by McLennan County Fire Protection members.