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editor's pick
City approves $4.5 million in tax rebates for hotel already getting $7.4 million from TIF
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

The Waco City Council voted Tuesday to provide more public money for an Embassy Suites hotel planned downtown and to lay more groundwork for the city’s first bike and scooter rental program.

The city council voted to approve up to $4.5 million in hotel occupancy tax rebates for the estimated $33 million hotel project, which would be in addition to a $7.4 million grant the council already approved from the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone. Public subsidies would account for 36 percent of the project cost if the hotel gets the full $4.5 million refund, $7.4 million TIF grant, and the cost estimate holds.

Krishna Lone Star LLC, the company building the hotel at 301 S. Second St., will be expected to hold a job fair targeting city-center residents for employment, city Economic Development Executive Director Melett Harrison said.

“There are several parameters in there for them to get that hotel occupancy tax rebate, and that’s one of them,” Harrison said.

She said the hotel will also hold a construction job fair to connect contractors on the project with local subcontractors, with a focus on minority- and women-owned businesses.

“They’re not required to hire those folks, but we want them to give the best consideration they can to local contractors,” Harrison said.

Construction is slated to start next year and take about two years, she said.

“They definitely have an 18- to 24-month construction timeline,” Harrison said.

Assistant City Manager Bradley Ford said Embassy Suites will also work with the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau to provide blocks of designated hotel rooms for events. The building’s parking garage will include 141 public parking spaces paid for through the TIF grant.

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.

Bike, scooter rentals

The council turned its attention again to Gotcha Bikes LLC, the company that plans to bring a fleet of 50 electric bikes and 50 electric scooters to Waco in June for a one-year pilot program. Chelsea Phlegar, a senior planner with the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization, gave the council an overview of the contract and scope of work with Gotcha Bikes during Tuesday’s meeting.

“It’s for one year with the option to extend for one additional year,” Phlegar said. “That extension is automatic, but either party can give a notice of 60 days to stop the extension. Also, either party may terminate the agreement at any time with 60 days’ notice.”

Gotcha Mobility LLC photo, file  

People ride Gotcha Scooters that will soon be on the streets of downtown Waco.

The contract specifies the city can allow or deny any Gotcha advertising in Waco. The council briefly discussed safety measures as well, considering the possibility of helmet laws and speed laws.

“Right now, the helmet requirement is not a city of Waco ordinance,” Phlegar said. “It is part of Gotcha’s overall policy.”

The council also approved an ordinance amending multiple sections of city code to include considerations for “shared mobility device programs,” like the pilot program Gotcha Bikes plans to implement in June. The ordinance amends restrictions to parking and riding on sidewalks and allows the devices on shared-use paths.

Other business

  • The city council approved an agreement with Baylor University to partially fund a Waco Employer Relations Specialist position
  • Approved a resolution to submit a letter requesting entry into project development for the Federal Transit Administration Capital Improvement Grant Program for the Waco Rapid Transit Corridor, beginning the grant process
  • Voted to approve an ordinance to create specific design standards for repurposed shipping containers used as residential structures.

Boys & Girls Clubs of Waco unveils new teen center
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

It was a closely fought foosball battle Tuesday afternoon in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Waco’s newly renovated Joe Troy Brownfield Memorial Branch location.

Nathaniel Walton, 10, and Amere Medlock, 9, hoisted their championship trophy after defeating local Lowe’s employees in a championship faceoff where a former indoor swimming pool area has been turned into a teen center with support from a $50,000 grant partnership with Renovation Across the Nation and Lowe’s.

“This is really exciting because now we have better equipment to play with and we are able to have tournaments,” Nathaniel said. “(The Lowe’s employees) were tougher than I thought, but it was fun.”

Local Boys & Girls Clubs CEO April Rosier said volunteer work, in-kind contributions and the $50,000 grant made the updates to the former church building at 2700 N. 21st St. possible.

“This building has been home to the Boys & Girls Clubs since the early 1980s and it actually used to be a church,” Rosier said. “When it was first purchased, the Boys & Girls Clubs actually built a swimming pool, but over the years it just stopped working.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Local Boys & Girls Club CEO April Rosier (center left) and Lowe’s employee Gary Moss (center right) are joined by supporters and children as they cut a ribbon to unveil the newly renovated Joe Troy Brownfield Memorial Branch teen center.

Leadership decided to fill in the swimming pool and create two teen areas in its place after receiving the grant. Teen club members suggested ideas on paint colors, activities and the layout of furniture to complete the renovations, she said.

“We have a half-court basketball goal, a gaming center, college readiness center, we also have pool, foosball and pingpong tables,” Rosier said. “We will also have a snack bar and lots of space for them to sit, eat and do their homework.”

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Waco serves children ages 6 to 18 with a mission of helping them become productive members of the community. Local Lowe’s assistant manager Rod Serrano said the effort was strongly focused and aligned with the local chapter’s mission.

“I see a lot great things, a lot of fun activities and a lot of things that are going to build great things in our community,” Serrano said. “Although we are a big box store, we definitely want to be in touch with our local community and help our future leaders.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Waco’s new teen center at its Joe Troy Brownfield Memorial Branch includes sofas, pool and foosball tables, a video game area and a half-court basketball area.

Clashes rock Venezuela as Guaido urges opposition uprising

CARACAS, Venezuela — Opposition leader Juan Guaidó took a bold step to revive his movement to seize power in Venezuela, taking to the streets Tuesday to call for a military uprising that drew quick support from the Trump administration but also fierce resistance from forces loyal to embattled socialist Nicolas Maduro.

Violent street battles erupted in parts of Caracas in what was the most serious challenge yet to Maduro’s rule — kicked off with a video shot at dawn of Guaidó, flanked by several heavily armed national guardsmen, urging a final push to topple Maduro.

In one dramatic incident during a chaotic day, several armored vehicles plowed into a group of anti-government demonstrators trying to storm the capital’s air base, hitting at least two protesters.

Still, the rebellion, dubbed “Operation Freedom,” seemed to have garnered only limited military support.

Meanwhile, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said the Trump administration was waiting for three key officials, including Maduro’s defense minister and head of the supreme court, to act on what he said were private pledges to remove Maduro. He did not provide details.

The dramatic events began early Tuesday when Guaidó, flanked by a few dozen national guardsmen and some armored crowd-control vehicles, released the three-minute video shot near the Carlota air base.

In a surprise, Leopoldo Lopez, Guaido’s political mentor and the nation’s most-prominent opposition activist, stood alongside him. Detained in 2014 for leading a previous round of anti-government unrest, Lopez said he had been released from house arrest by security forces adhering to an order from Guaidó.

“I want to tell the Venezuelan people: This is the moment to take to the streets and accompany these patriotic soldiers,” Lopez declared.

As the two opposition leaders coordinated actions from a highway overpass, troops loyal to Maduro fired tear gas from inside the adjacent air base.

A crowd that quickly swelled to a few thousand scurried for cover, reappearing later with Guaidó at a plaza a few blocks from the disturbances. A smaller group of masked youths stayed behind on the highway, lobbing rocks and Molotov cocktails toward the air base and setting a government bus on fire.

Amid the mayhem, several armored utility vehicles careened over a berm and drove at full speed into the crowd. Two demonstrators, lying on the ground with their heads and legs bloodied, were rushed away on a motorcycle as the vehicles sped away dodging fireballs thrown by the demonstrators.

“It’s now or never,” said one of the young rebellious soldiers, his face covered in the blue bandanna worn by the few dozen insurgent soldiers.

The head of a medical center near the site of the street battles said doctors were treating 50 people, about half of them with injuries suffered from rubber bullets. At least one person had been shot with live ammunition.

Later Tuesday, Lopez and his family sought refuge in the Chilean ambassador’s residence in Caracas, where another political ally has been holed up for over a year. There were also reports that 25 troops who had been with Guaidó fled to Brazil’s diplomatic mission.

Amid the confusion, Maduro tried to project an image of strength, saying he had spoken to several regional military commanders who reaffirmed their loyalty.

“Nerves of steel!” he said in a message posted on Twitter.

Flanked by top military commanders, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López condemned Guaido’s move as a “terrorist” act and “coup attempt” that was bound to fail like past uprisings.

“Those who try to take Miraflores with violence will be met with violence,” he said on national television, referring to the presidential palace where hundreds of government supporters, some of them brandishing firearms, had gathered in response to a call to defend Maduro.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the “right-wing extremists” would not succeed in fracturing the armed forces, which have largely stood with the socialist leader throughout the months of turmoil.

“Since 2002, we’ve seen the same pattern,” Arreaza told the AP. “They call for violence, a coup, and send people into the streets so that there are confrontations and deaths. And then from the blood they try to construct a narrative.”

Protesters erected barricades of debris at several downtown intersections about 10 blocks from the presidential palace, but police in riot gear moved in quickly to clear the roads. Most shops and businesses were closed and the streets of the capital unusually quiet, as people huddled at home to await the outcome of the day’s drama.

Guaidó said he called for the uprising to restore Venezuela’s constitutional order, broken when Maduro was sworn in earlier this year for a second term following elections boycotted by the opposition and considered illegitimate by dozens of countries.

He said that in the coming hours he would release a list of top commanders supporting the uprising. There were unconfirmed reports that Gen. Manuel Christopher Figuera, who heads the feared intelligence agency responsible for keeping Lopez in state custody, was among members of the security forces who had decided to flip.

“The armed forces have taken the right decision,” said Guaidó. “With the support of the Venezuelan people and the backing of our constitution they are on the right side of history.”

Anti-government demonstrators gathered in several other cities, although there were no reports that Guaidó’s supporters had taken control of any military installations.

As events unfolded, governments from around the world expressed support for Guaidó while reiterating calls to avoid violent confrontation.

Bolton declined to discuss possible actions — military or otherwise — but reiterated that “all options” are on the table as President Donald J. Trump monitors developments “minute by minute.”

He said he was waiting for key power brokers including Padrino, Supreme Court chief justice Maikel Moreno and head of the presidential guard to make good on their commitments to achieve the peaceful transfer of power to Guiado.

“All agreed that Maduro had to go. They need to be able to act this afternoon, or this evening, to help bring other military forces to the side of the interim president,” Bolton said. “If this effort fails, (Venezuela) will sink into a dictatorship from which there are very few possible alternatives.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Baylor acrobatics and tumbling head coach Felecia Mulkey holds up BU's fifth national championship trophy after defeating Oregon last week.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Baylor women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey, holding her grandson Kannon, stands with daughter and assistant coach Makenzie Fuller following the team’s NCAA title win over Notre Dame.

editor's pick
L3 competing for military helicopter contract
 Mike Copeland  / 

Attack helicopters hovering over Waco may sound far-fetched, but L3 Technologies has joined AVX Aircraft Co., based in the Fort Worth area, in designing a chopper to meet U.S. Army specifications with an eye toward landing a production contract.

Such a deal would represent a coup for New York-based L3 Technologies, which operates an aircraft modification plant at Texas State Technical College airport but has not historically built choppers. L3 has operations worldwide, but the U.S. Army specifically mentioned Waco in an announcement last week listing companies tasked with creating competing designs.

The L3-AVX team is one of five groups the Army has chosen to design, build and test a “Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft.” The Army will choose two finalists to build and test a prototype by 2023, with field-ready production to start by 2028, according to Army press releases. The new helicopter will be a replacement for the OH-58 Kiowa helicopter discontinued several years ago.

L3 officials have declined to comment much beyond a press release.

“This would be good for Waco and good for the company,” said Lance Martin, spokesman for L3’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Systems work unit, which the Waco plant joined last year.

The unit is based in Plano, employs 15,000 in the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Italy and Australia.

Waco plant

The Waco plant employs between 700 and 800 people, making it a major employer for the city, but layoffs in recent years have devastated job numbers at the 900,000-square-foot complex with hangars that accommodate military transport planes and personal jets owned by foreign dignitaries.

Besides the L3-AVX team, the Army is considering proposals from Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. in Fort Worth; The Boeing Co. in Mesa, Arizona; Karem Aircraft Inc. in Lake Forest, California; and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., a segment within Lockheed Martin, in Stratford, Connecticut.

An Army press release mentions Waco as the L3 site participating in the collaboration. It also identifies Waco as part of the L3 Communications Integrated Systems business unit, though L3 scrapped that designation during a restructuring process last year that created thee business units: ISR Systems, Electronic Systems, and Communications Systems.

The L3-AVX prototype “will meet 100 percent of mandatory requirements and exceed 70 percent of them,” according to an L3 press release. The companies would deliver a “safe, performance-driven, affordable aircraft capable of operating highly contested airspace and degraded environments for extended periods.”

“This FARA-CP solution provides L3 and AVX an opportunity to demonstrate the agility and innovation that sets our team apart in support of the U.S. Army’s modernization priorities,” L3 CEO Chris Kubasik wrote in the press release. “We are collaborating to deliver a prototype that provides powerful leap-ahead capability for our warfighters at an affordable life-cycle cost.”

The L3 and AVX team “will provide the Army with an advanced, lethal and affordable reconnaissance and light-attack platform,” AVX CEO Troy Gaffey wrote in the press release.

The Army press releases do not state how much the helicopters are expected to cost or how many are expected to be built. A report by states the Army wants to pay no more than $30 million for each aircraft, which will be capable of flying without a pilot on board for some missions, have equipment for controlling drones from the cockpit and be able to travel 235 mph.

The design by AVX and L3 is a single-engine craft with a wing for lift during high-speed forward flight, a fly-by-wire side-by-side cockpit, and two ducted fans providing thrust and enhancing maneuverability.

Texas push to decriminalize pot falters despite GOP support

AUSTIN — Texas’ tough stance on marijuana as the drug becomes increasingly legal elsewhere in the U.S. has grounded a bipartisan push in the state to decriminalize minor offenses — a change the Texas GOP platform has come around to endorsing, but not Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

It all but ensures that Texas will remain in the company of more than a dozen states where possessing any amount of pot can result in a criminal record. A Democrat leading the decriminalization effort said political realities in the Texas Capitol forced him to weaken his bill ahead of a key House vote.

The chamber passed the measure on a 98-43 vote on Monday, drawing support from both sides of the aisle.

Less than 24 hours after the vote, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared the measure dead in the Senate.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, never gave Moody’s companion bill in the Senate a public hearing and previously told The Texas Observer he didn’t see an appetite for marijuana reform in the upper chamber.

In a tweet Tuesday, Patrick confirmed that to be the case. “Criminal Justice Chair @Whitmire_John is right that #HB 63 is dead in the @Texas Senate,” Patrick tweeted Tuesday morning. “I join with those House Republicans who oppose this step toward legalization of marijuana.”

The revised measure would reduce penalties for those with an ounce or less of marijuana to a Class C misdemeanor — eliminating arrests, but still making possession a crime.

The failure of the bill’s original language underscores how politically resistant Texas’ GOP leaders are to relaxing marijuana laws, even a year after voters in neighboring Oklahoma fully legalized medical marijuana.

GOP platform

It also effectively defies the Texas Republican Party’s own platform, which GOP delegates overwhelmingly revised last summer to support decriminalization for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana.

“This was hugely popular among delegates and hugely popular among the party,” said Jeff LeBlanc, who served on the Texas GOP committee that drafted the new platform. “We have a disconnect with the lieutenant governor and the governor on this issue. It’s frustrating for us and I don’t know why that is.”

Currently, at least four states have designated possession of small amounts of marijuana as a low-level misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Texas remains a tough landscape for marijuana advocates as pot laws are loosened nationwide. Shortly after becoming governor in 2015, Abbott signed a bill making Texas the last big state to allow some form of medical marijuana, albeit in an oil extract so low in the psychoactive component, THC, that it couldn’t get a person high.

Abbott made clear at the time that he “will not allow” legalized marijuana in Texas on his watch. He said last year that he would be open to dropping the penalty for minor possession to a lower misdemeanor but stopped short of endorsing decriminalization.

Abbott’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.

Democratic Rep. Joe Moody, who carried the original bill, said his new version accomplishes much of the original measure’s goals and now has a chance to make it across the finish line. Moody praised the bill for drawing dozens of co-authors and said he worked with Abbott’s office to make certain changes to the bill.

“But as much as I appreciate all those signatures, there’s still one signature I have to think about,” Moody said. “And just as I have worked with everyone else today, I’m prepared to work in the lanes the governor has laid out to get this done.”

The new law would mandate a fine of up to $500 and would also look to streamline protocol to expunge the charges from offenders’ records.

Current law

Under current Texas law those with small amounts of marijuana are subject to a Class B misdemeanor, which could mean a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days of jail time.

Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said it is disappointing the bill was changed to maintain criminal penalties.

“It would have been a better approach to remove it from the criminal side and make it a civil citation,” Fazio said. “We certainly understand you have to make certain concessions to earn allies and that’s exactly what has been done.”

On the House floor Tuesday, just after the lower chamber gave final approval to his bill in a 103-42 vote, Moody said that Patrick was “the odd man out” and that “the ball is in his court.”

“Whatever you think about Colorado-style legalization, this isn’t it. It isn’t even a step toward it,” Moody told his colleagues on the House floor. “Mr. Patrick has been tweeting about this bill instead of giving us the courtesy of talking to us here in the House. ... Let’s vote this across the hall so they can get to work on the House’s priorities and so we can see how those priorities are respected as we consider Senate bills over here over the next few weeks.”

Waco-area House representatives Charles “Doc” Anderson and Kyle Kacal voted against the bill. Bell County representative Hugh Shine also voted no, as did Cody Harris, who represents Hill County, and DeWayne Burns, who represents Bosque County. J.D. Sheffield, who represents Coryell and Hamilton counties, voted in favor of the bill. All are Republicans.