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Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

La Vega players run onto the field prior to their semifinal win against Decatur last week. “Modoc” is the chant the team uses after each win, including their 53-0 win over Decatur.

TxDOT seeks $8 million more from local board to offset I-35 overrun
 Cassie L Smith  / 

The project to rebuild and widen the northern section of Interstate 35 through Waco is $40 million over budget, and state officials are asking the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization to help bridge the gap with another $8 million of its state allowance for local projects.

The MPO board, made up of local government leaders, had already agreed to contribute $80 million toward the first phase of I-35, from 12th Street to North Loop 340, which was set for construction in 2019 at an estimated cost of $300 million.

The board on Thursday was posted to vote on giving up another $60 million to prime the pump for the second phase of I-35 work south of 12th Street, but it tabled that vote upon learning that the bids for the first phase had come in at $340 million.

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver, who sits on the policy board, said members needed more time to consider the Texas Department of Transportation’s new $8 million request for the first phase. The MPO board meets next on Jan. 17.

“I think that’s difficult to ask of the entire MPO when we stretched to make it to $80 million on a project,” Deaver said. “We feel like is an international freight corridor that happens to run through our city. When it starts to impact our other regional projects it’s a challenge.”

Deaver said adding $8 million for the first phase as well as $60 million for the second phase could keep some other local transportation priorities from happening.

Every agency is dealing with limited resources, including TxDOT, Deaver said. However, he argued that I-35 is not a local road but a transportation corridor essential for economic development for the whole state and nation.

“I think we just need more discussion before we’re ready to vote on that,” Deaver said.

Construction is set to begin in the spring to rebuild I-35 from South 12th Street to North Loop 340/Meyers Lane, expanding it to eight lanes, with new bridges, ramps and frontage roads. The second phase, from 12th Street to South Loop 340 in Robinson, is budgeted at $240 million but remains unfunded.

Local leaders are hoping to get the second phase of I-35 work funded in time to run in tandem with the first phase to avoid the safety and local economic risks of prolonging the project.

Given the higher-than-expected costs for the project’s northern section, new estimates may be needed for the southern section, said MPO director Chris Evilia.

“The bottom line is there’s an additional amount there that has to come from some source,” Evilia said.

More than 100 people recently attended an TxDOT open house at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum to learn about coming changes regarding I-35. The state agency is holding public meetings to share details to the projects to keep residents informed of the upcoming work.

The public can keep up with the status of the project by visiting

Czech-inspired restaurant, hotel, brewery wins TIF nod alongside Elm Avenue projects
 Phillip Ericksen  / 

A Czech-inspired mixed-use development including a brewery, restaurant, bakery and hotel on South Eighth Street and a pair of Elm Avenue projects received approvals Thursday for more than $1.6 million in development incentives from the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board.

A busy day for the eight-member TIF Zone board was shorter than originally scheduled because a presentation for a full-service Embassy Suites hotel slated for downtown was postponed to next month.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

TIF tour

Contractor Brian Mitchell (left) describes the Pivovar project as developer Julius Kramaric looks on. The project will add two stories onto the existing building at Eighth Street and Jackson Avenue and include a brewery, restaurant, bakery and hotel.

Pivovar, which means “brewery” in Czech, will stand at the corner of South Eighth Street and Jackson Avenue as a pillar of Czech culture, complete with Czech flags over the entrance of the 9,300-square-foot building.

A brewery on the ground floor will produce Czech-style lager, served tank-to-tap. The Pivovar Restaurant will serve a fusion Czech-Texan cuisine, complete with goulash, and Pekarna Bakery will offer authentic pastries, developers said.

The TIF board approved a $683,291 request for improvements to the facade, sidewalks, landscaping and repairs. It represents almost 8 percent of the project’s $8.67 million cost.

It is the vision of Julius Kramaric and Oldrich Cichon, whose years-long search for a location ended in Waco because of the area’s Czech influence, particularly in the nearby town of West.

Sterling Architects LLC rendering 

Pivovar, a Czech-inspired restaurant, brewery, bakery and hotel, will operate at the corner of South Eighth Street and Jackson Avenue. 

“We would like to bring a piece of Europe here, and we hope that you will like it,” said Kramaric, who has practiced law in the Czech Republic for more than 20 years.

The second and third floors, which will be added to the existing building, will feature 32 boutique hotel suites, according to the plans. Each suite will be at least 400 square feet and include a small kitchen.

The development is expected to draw foot traffic from the nearby Magnolia Market at the Silos and attract tourists and locals alike.

“There’s no closer spot for visitors that are wanting to come and visit the silos, as well as the rest of our beautiful city, than right there in the heart of downtown Waco,” said Brian Mitchell, the contractor on the project. “We think it’s a really good project, and again, we’re honored to be associated with it.”

Construction is expected to start next year.

Mammoth Culture Club

On Elm Avenue, a stretch of East Waco that will look dramatically different in a few years, the TIF board approved two more projects in the hopes of revitalizing the area.

Austin Meek, the owner of Pokey O’s ice cream and cookie shop and host of the KWBU show “Downtown Depot,” won $275,223, or 20 percent of the property investment, in TIF Zone funds. The money comes from a portion of downtown property taxes of four taxing entities and is used to encourage downtown development.

Meek’s project in the 400 block includes three elements, dubbed The Mammoth Culture Club, the Mammoth Culture Club patio and The Slab.

The 3,500-square-foot “Bull Durham” building, which is likely more than 120 years old, will include an indoor stage for live programming, a recording studio, a full bar, a rooftop deck and a Pokey O’s location, according to the plans.

The adjacent 7,500-square-foot patio will feature an outdoor stage, beer garden-style seating and open space. And The Slab will include outdoor retail three existing concrete slabs with repurposed shipping containers surrounding a pavilion. Meek, who is unrelated to District 4 Councilman Dillon Meek, said one container would be used for food, another would sell beer and wine and the final two would offer retail space.

Specific Space rendering 

A development called the Mammoth Culture Club got a recommendation Thursday for $275,000 in incentives.

Specific Space rendering 

A development called the Mammoth Culture Club got a recommendation Thursday for $275,000 in incentives.

“I have been able to formulate what I think is my best way to help Waco become the next great place,” Meek said. “In conversations that I’ve had with real estate agents, small business owners, it’s clear that there’s a missing component in Waco, and that is the entertainment sector. One way we hope to address that is through this project.”

Meek requested funding for a five-panel, 6-feet-tall wall that would feature a variety of changing murals made for “Instagrammable” moments, he said. City staffers and the city-aligned nonprofit City Center Waco did not recommend funding the wall because it would violate an Elm Avenue overlay district requirement that would limit a wall in that spot to 4 feet tall.

After the board opted not to fund the wall, which would have increased the package to 25 percent of the project cost, Meek said he would continue working with the city and City Center Waco to find a way to protect the privacy of activities on the patio while meeting city requirements.

The TIF Zone board has traditionally covered about 15 percent of project costs, but the board has agreed 20 percent is an adequate incentive package for Elm Avenue developments.

Meek is hoping to complete the project by the beginning of 2020.


A residential and retail development led by Ed Kinkeade, a retired federal judge, and his son, Brad Kinkeade, was awarded $660,000, or 20.6 percent of the project cost, for facade improvements, new sidewalks, landscaping, streetscape and repairs to Bridge Street.

Kinkeade rendering  

An apartment development off of Elm Avenue got a recommendation Thursday for $660,000 in TIF money.

Kinkeade rendering 

An apartment development off of Elm Avenue got a recommendation Thursday for $660,000 in TIF money.

The three-story project includes 31 apartment units and 1,800 square feet of retail space at the corner of Elm Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

In October, the city council unanimously voted to abandon a portion of Bridge Street right of way to make room for the project. The Kinkeades, whose TIF request was identical to the city staff and City Center Waco recommendation, sought feedback from East Waco advocates and community leaders, quelling initial concerns over the project.

Brad Kinkeade said East Waco residents requested the project maintain a welcoming design without obtrusive security measures like a metal fence. Instead, laminated glass windows will be used on the bottom floor.

Developers also plan to have large, cut-out letter sign displaying the words “East Waco,” atop the development and include public art vignettes.

“We really have a lot of confidence in this project,” City Center Waco Executive Director Megan Henderson said. “We appreciate the sincere willingness of the Kinkeades to take a step back from what they thought was best and consider what other people thought, and they’ve made some pretty significant changes, and that says a lot.”

Ruth Jackson, who represents the area on the TIF board, said she was pleased by the process and the willingness of the developers to take historic preservation and inclusiveness into account.

“The concerns of the neighborhood and the people who live in East Waco have been considered,” Jackson said. “It’s important. As a people, they have a lot of pride in East Waco. It’s not a ghetto, it’s not a hood.”

Construction is expected to start next year.

Robinson police ready for Blue Santa gift distribution
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

While much of McLennan County is preparing for the holiday season, more than 30 Robinson families will be getting a little extra help this year thanks to Blue Santa.

Late last month, the Robinson Police Department adorned the Christmas tree in the lobby of City Hall with 104 ornaments representing 104 children in need of Christmas gifts. With help from community donations based on the ornaments, police employees organized presents selected from children’s wish lists Thursday, ahead of distribution scheduled for Friday.

“It is the season of giving, and the expressions on kids’ faces is the number one priority,” Robinson Police Chief Phillip Prasifka said. “To see those cheerful expressions and know that everyone has something under the tree, it is great that the community and staff here is working together to help make that possible.”

The program has been up and running almost 10 years with support from local residents, churches, schools and businesses that provide gifts for children and families in need. Last year, the program helped 158 children from 51 families, making it the largest in the Robinson program’s history.

“This year, we were mentally capping applications at 100, but luckily we didn’t have many more who applied like last year so we didn’t have to turn anyone away,” said Jessica Casper, the Robinson senior dispatcher who coordinates the Blue Santa program.

“Last year was completely overwhelming with the need that we saw, but this year, it didn’t seem like the need was as great,” Robinson police Officer Chris Lopez said.

Lopez, who serves as Robinson’s crime prevention officer, dispatch and evidence technician Gloria Alvarez and Casper helped arrange the program this year. Families seeking assistance had children ranging from newborns to age 18.

“I like doing this for the kids,” Alvarez said. “My kids get a lot of stuff for Christmas, so I want to make sure other kids get as much and more for their Christmas.”

The Robinson Chamber of Commerce also partnered with the police department to encourage donations.

“Christmas is awesome and it should be awesome for everybody, so that is why this is so important to our community,” Lopez said. “Everyone should get to experience that, despite their situation.”

Families are scheduled to pick up their holiday donations Friday. Even though this year’s distribution will be smaller than last year, the event is just as meaningful, Casper said.

“To me, this brings the community together,” she said. “This really shows that our community is here, we love our town and our community can help.”

Trump rejects bill to avoid shutdown, forcing GOP scramble

WASHINGTON — After a rare lashing from conservatives, President Donald Trump declared Thursday he would not sign a bill to keep funding the government because it fails to provide billions for a border wall with Mexico, throwing Congress into deep disarray and risking a federal shutdown this weekend.

Conservatives want to keep fighting for the money to pay for the wall as a last act of the GOP-led Congress before Democrats take House control in January. They warn that “caving” on Trump’s repeated wall promises could hurt his 2020 re-election chances, and other Republicans’ as well.

Trump’s sudden rejection of the legislation, after days of mixed messages, sent Republican leaders scrambling for options back on Capitol Hill.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, exiting a hastily called meeting with Trump and other GOP lawmakers at the White House, said, “We’re going to go back and work on adding border security to this, also keeping the government open, because we do want to see an agreement.”

By afternoon, Trump shifted his terminology, saying he’s not necessarily demanding a border wall but “steel slats” — which is similar to the border security fencing already provided for in the bill.

The nuance could provide Trump a way to try to proclaim victory. The bill would keep funding at current levels, $1.3 billion, for border security, including pedestrian fencing and replacement fences, not his border wall. It requires only previously used designs.

The House had been set to vote Thursday, before a Friday deadline to fund parts of the government or risk a partial shutdown just before Christmas. The Senate has already approved the bill, which would fund the government to Feb. 8.

House Republicans adopted the last-ditch idea of adding Trump’s $5 billion demand to the bill, along with an $8 billion disaster aid package that many lawmakers support for coastal hurricanes and California wildfires. The plan would be to send the new package to the Senate. GOP Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said House Republicans would vote late Thursday.

But it was unclear if such a package could pass the House, where some Republicans oppose more border wall funding and others were visibly frustrated by the messy lurch of events. And it would not likely be approved in the Senate because Democrats have already resisted Trump’s $5 billion, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer call it “ineffective, unnecessary and exorbitantly expensive,” and many senators have already left for the holidays. It would, however, give some House Republicans a release valve for their desire to vote for the wall funding.

Without a deal, more than 800,000 federal workers would face furloughs or be forced to work without pay, disrupting government operations at year-end.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., met with Ryan after the House leaders returned from the meeting with Trump. Senators were advised they could be called back to the Capitol Friday for another vote.

Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had endured complaints during a private morning meeting earlier Thursday from Republicans in the Capitol complaining that they were closing out their majority without a fight.

Trump interrupted the basement session with a phone call to Ryan, and then lashed out at Republican leaders on Twitter.

Ryan had promised a “big fight” after November’s midterm elections, but as Republicans lost House control, negotiations over the year-end spending bill have largely been between Trump and Democrats.

“I was promised the Wall and Border Security by leadership,” Trump tweeted. “Would be done by end of year (NOW). It didn’t happen! We foolishly fight for Border Security for other countries — but not for our beloved U.S.A. Not good!”

“Republicans are in a state of disarray,” said House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is poised to become speaker when Democrats take control Jan. 3. “Wall funding is a non-starter.”

The temporary funding bill would keep government running to Feb. 8, but some House Republicans say they must fight for the wall now. Like Trump, they’re facing enormous criticism from high-profile conservatives on an issue that was central to his presidential campaign.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, said Trump should veto the funding bill if it passes without wall money.

With Pelosi’s backing the Senate-passed bill likely has enough support for House approval with votes mostly from Democratic lawmakers, who are still the minority, and some Republicans.

Trump has bounced back and forth with mixed messages. Just last week he said he would be “proud” to shut down the government over it. Earlier this week he appeared to shelve his shutdown threats, with the White House saying he was open to reviewing whatever bill Congress could send him.

Before turning on fellow Republicans, Trump had been directing his ire at Democrats, tweeting that they were “putting politics over country.”

At issue in the current fight is money for nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, State and Justice, as well as national parks and forests.

Many agencies, including the Pentagon and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services, are covered for the year and would continue to operate as usual. The U.S. Postal Service would not be affected by any government shutdown because it’s an independent agency.

The president also put Democrats on notice Thursday about their agenda for the new year, saying he “will not sign any of their legislation, including infrastructure, unless it has perfect Border Security.”

Judge denies mistrial, sentences capital murder defendant to life in prison
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

A Waco man convicted of capital murder earlier this month was sentenced to life in prison without parole Thursday after a judge denied his request for mistrial based on claims of prosecutorial misconduct.

Judge Matt Johnson of Waco’s 54th State District Court rejected Tyler Sherrod Clay’s motion for mistrial and sentenced the 29-year-old former owner of a Waco smoke shop in the murder-for-hire death of Joshua Ladale Pittman in December 2015.

A jury on Dec. 6 convicted Clay of hiring Keith Antoine Spratt to kill Pittman, who was shot multiple times while playing a video gambling machine at an East Waco convenience store. Prosecutors said during the four-day trial that Clay wanted Pittman killed out of revenge because Pittman reportedly robbed Clay after a dice game and they said he could not let that stand.

However, Johnson did not enter a judgement in accordance with the jury’s verdict or sentence Clay to the automatic life prison term at that time because Clay’s attorneys, Randy Schaffer, of Houston, and Melanie Walker, of Waco, moved for a mistrial but asked the judge to defer his ruling until after the jury returned its verdict.

Schaffer asked for the mistrial after prosecutor Hilary LaBorde played a portion of a videotape of a police interview with Clay during her jury summations that the parties had agreed to redact.

Schaffer argued that LaBorde’s actions were part of an ongoing battle he waged with the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office over not providing evidence he was entitled to in a timely manner, including offers of favorable deals to jailed witnesses with pending cases. He also complained that they called a witness who was not listed on initial witness lists and that prosecutors generally did not play fair and were “dealing from the bottom of the deck.”

Schaffer said he talked to local attorneys before Clay’s trial. They warned him to beware of unethical “shady dealings” by the DA’s office, he said.

“Those attorneys should be NFL scouts, because every single thing they told me about the DA’s office came true,” Schaffer told the judge. “It’s part of a pattern, where they deal from the bottom of the deck. They don’t follow court orders. They don’t follow rules of discovery. They play by their own rules.”

LaBorde bristled at Schaffer’s implications of impropriety and said she was having trouble with her laptop on the morning of summations and asked an investigator in her office to prepare a presentation for her summations that included a portion of Clay’s police interview.

She said she played the excluded part by mistake and failed to watch the six-minute portion she planned to use in her summations before playing it for the jury because she was rushed for time.

“You say you didn’t have time to watch the entire clip,” Schaffer said. “You had time to watch the first five minutes, but not the final minute?”

“Obviously, I wished I had watched it all now,” LaBorde said. “This was a mistake. I don’t appreciate you saying I am unethical because I made a mistake.”

Once she heard the excluded portion, LaBorde cut off the recording, which was from Clay’s interview with Waco police Detective Melissa Thompson. In the video, Clay tells Thompson, “Nothing like that … So, I don’t know why I feel like — I don’t know why somebody would say I did some ...” LaBorde stopped the video at that point.

Clay was wondering aloud to the detective why others would say that Pittman robbed him, the state’s theory for why he paid Spratt to kill Pittman. Prosecutors agreed not to play that portion after Schaffer objected that statements by others are inadmissible hearsay.

Prosecutor Sterling Harmon argued at Thursday’s hearing that Schaffer had not properly preserved his objection and request for mistrial because he asked the judge to defer his ruling until after Clay was convicted. He said LaBorde made a simple mistake that was not harmful to Clay and it was one that was cured by the judge’s instruction that the jury disregard it.

James Spears, a four-time felon, testified at Clay’s trial that Clay was angry that Pittman robbed him and he offered him $5,000 to kill Pittman. Spears said he was arrested and jailed soon after Clay made the offer and he was not able to take him up on it.

Later, Spears told the jury, he and Spratt were in jail together and Spratt told him that Clay offered to pay Spratt $15,000 to kill Pittman. Spratt said Clay still owed him $5,000 for the murder.

Spratt, 30, also is charged with capital murder. His case remains pending in 19th State District Court.

Staff photo — Tommy Witherspoon