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editor's pick
Waco CEO who graduated from Cenikor work program defends it after claims of potential labor violations
 Brooke Crum  / 

Cenikor Foundation graduate and board member Larry Hobbs credits the nonprofit with helping him overcome addiction and develop the work ethic that has led him to success, despite a recent journalistic investigation that found Cenikor sent thousands of patients over the years to work without pay at more than 300 companies.

An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and a documentary on Al Jazeera’s “Fault Lines” released late last month found tens of thousands of Cenikor patients in Texas and Louisiana worked without pay at hundreds of for-profit companies as part of the patients’ treatment, possibly violating federal labor law and leaving little time for addiction treatment or counseling.

Reveal also reported last week that former patients who went through Cenikor’s work program to treat their addiction have filed three federal lawsuits against the foundation. They claim Cenikor violated federal labor law by forcing them to work for free.

But Hobbs said the work program taught him skills he would not have otherwise, which helped him ascend to president and CEO of Hobbs Bonded Fibers, a local manufacturing company. He thought the Reveal story was biased and did not tell the full story, Hobbs said.

“They found three disgruntled folks. I’m sure I can find three disgruntled folks at my plant if I try hard enough,” he said. “I’m proud to have gone through that program. It really helped instill a work ethic that I still use to this day, and it also helped me understand my personal responsibility to take ownership for my choices.”

Cenikor has a Waco location that serves more than 1,000 clients annually in outpatient detox and residential services, Cenikor spokesman Dan Rene said. The Waco location does not have the work program, which is part of Cenikor’s long-term residential recovery program.

“For 53 years, Cenikor Foundation served its clients and their communities and families, changing thousands of lives for the better,” Cenikor Vice President of Human Resources Kellee Webb said in a statement. “We are proud to partner with the Waco community to provide short-term residential, detox and intensive outpatient services to those in need. Our focus remains on clients’ recovery from substance use disorders and their re-entry into society.”

A letter on Cenikor’s website from President and CEO Bill Bailey states the work program “provides a career path for clients to be hired by companies who traditionally do not hire those with felony convictions, allowing them to return to a life of being a responsible, contributing member of society.”

Hobbs, 57, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction as a young adult and found Cenikor’s Fort Worth program “by the grace of God,” he said. He spent about 18 months in the therapeutic community, doing physical labor at various companies and receiving individual and group counseling.

“I was an addict,” Hobbs said. “I had an addiction, and I didn’t know it.”

While at Cenikor, Hobbs built wooden trusses for one company, worked for a business that manufactured aluminum-framed windows and a wire cable company. He said Cenikor tried to place patients in the work program in jobs that suited their needs.

“It was hard work, but it was fulfilling work,” he said.

Cenikor sent Hobbs to college on its dime. He did not earn a degree while in the program, although the courses transferred when Hobbs later attended Texas Tech University. He did graduate from the Cenikor program in 1987, which required him to have a job, a car, a home and money in the bank.

Hobbs graduated from the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities at Texas Tech, a program for students in recovery, on Dec. 16, 2000. He went to work the next day. Hobbs started as production manager at Hobbs Bonded Fibers before becoming plant manager, chief operating officer and now chief executive officer.

Hobbs’ father, Carey Hobbs, took ownership of the company by the ’70s and later relocated it to Waco. It has become a high-profile manufacturer of products ranging from sound-deadening material for the automotive industry to insulation for garments and military sleeping bags. They sold the company in 2015 to a New York-based private equity firm but remained involved in its operations.

When Larry Hobbs returned to Waco after college, the Freeman Center, Cenikor’s predecessor in Waco, asked him to join its board of directors. Hobbs served on the board until Cenikor stepped in, and the new organization asked him to join its national board of directors, which he still serves on today.

“We still offer treatment in Waco, and that wouldn’t have happened without Cenikor,” he said.

Former McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna started serving on the Cenikor board of directors about the time it took over the Freeman Center, he said. He is now the board chairman.

Reyna said he wanted to join the board to ensure Waco maintained a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. He strongly believes people with addiction need proper tools to overcome it. He served on the Cenikor board while district attorney, but he said he saw no conflict of interest in holding both positions. He said judges may have recommended Cenikor for some offenders during sentencing and that the McLennan County Pretrial Intervention Program used the facility for assessments to determine if people had a drug or alcohol problem.

Nelson Barnes, assistant district attorney, said his office still uses Cenikor to conduct the assessments and that people can choose to go to Cenikor for treatment as part of their sentence, if they are required to complete treatment.

Currently, eight people on probation receive outpatient treatment from Cenikor, and one person on probation is in the inpatient treatment program in Waco, said Chip Seigman, McLennan County Community Supervision and Corrections Department director. There are 3,000 people on probation in the county.

Seigman said people typically are sent to the state Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility because its program is shorter than Cenikor’s, but people can request to go to Cenikor. The state program lasts six months, while Cenikor’s lasts 18 months.

Cenikor has locations in Texas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

editor's pick
Relocated Waco Fire Station No. 5 heading for September opening
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

Waco Fire Station No. 5 crews will soon be back in a home base of their own, and its Bagby Avenue location will position them to protect growing areas of the city.

“We’ve made progress, and it is an actual physical building at this time with the projected completion date in September 2019,” Waco Fire Chief Bobby Tatum said. “There have been some delays because of the rain we’ve had in the last couple of weeks, but they are working diligently to stay on task and complete the station.”

For the past three years, Station No. 5 crews have been temporarily housed in the Central Fire Station with fire administration, at 1016 Columbus Ave. The department moved out of the old Station No. 5 at 2624 Speight Ave. in early 2016. The 60-year-old building needed costly repairs, and the city decided the money would be better spent on a new station in a more strategic location at 4515 Bagby Ave., near Bagby Avenue and New Road.

“This fire station replaces the old Fire Station No. 5 on Speight that was built in 1958,” Tatum said. “It is being relocated here to improve our response times to the Central Texas Marketplace, parts of (Interstate) 35, and be close to the growing areas of our city.”

With a cost projection of $2.75 million, the new station will include an office for a battalion chief and living quarters for firefighters. Tatum said updated equipment and safety features that should be standard for modern firehouses will also be included in the new station.

“The architectural design of this station is going to be different from any of our current stations,” he said. “We’ve looked at what we’ve accomplished in the past and we want to improve on our fire stations, but also take into consideration the comfort of the firefighters who are there for 24 hours per shift.”

New to Station No. 5, the building will be open to the public during business hours so residents can consult with firefighters on any noninvasive health concerns. A public restroom and water fountain will also be available.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Work is progressing on the new Waco Fire Station No. 5, at 4515 Bagby Ave. near New Road, and is scheduled to wrap up in September.

“We want to build a station that fits into the station and is a part of the community,” Tatum said. “We want to be involved, meet the neighbors and to see the benefits of having a fire station in their neighborhood.”

Although weather pushed back the anticipated completion date from August to September, an open house is planned for the fall, Tatum said.

Station No. 6

Design work is also continuing for Station No. 6’s move from an undersized building at 2800 Bosque Blvd. to the site of the former 25th Street Theatre at 1006 N. 25th St.

“The architect with Station No. 6 is coming up with a design, a mockup,” Tatum said. “Once it’s complete, there will be community input for what the station will look like. We also want to inform the public what parts of the current theater can be saved, if any, and then we will start the bid process to hire a general contractor.”

The city bought the long-vacant 73-year-old 25th Street Theatre building in May last year with plans to remodel it for use by the department. By December, staffers determined damage to the structure was too extensive for a remodel to be feasible.

The property will still house Station No. 6 and headquarters for the Waco Fire Department, but they will be in a new building, with an estimated project cost of $5.1 million.

City leaders have also discussed building a new fire station in the next three to five years, Station No. 16, in the area of Ritchie Road and Panther Way in far western Waco, where residential development is booming. Beyond plans already under development, the department’s facilities are well situated, Tatum said.

“We have strategically looked at where each of our fire stations are located and we don’t think we will have to build another station for the next several years,” Tatum said. “We want to make sure we provide the best quick and fast fire coverage for these areas in looking toward the future.”

editor's pick
Waco Regional Airport seeing more frequent flights, more passengers
 Mike Copeland  / 

Relaxing in the Waco Regional Airport terminal, Ohio residents Robert and Madison Speelman reflected on their first visit to the city. Magnolia Market at the Silos was fun. They liked the river, the weather and the Suspension Bridge.

Their flight to Waco from Dallas also represented an ice-breaker, their first on American Eagle, the only commercial airline serving the market. They would take Eagle back to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for a connecting flight to Columbus, Ohio, after their weekend getaway.

The scene is playing out more often at Waco’s municipal airport. Eagle reported nearly 870 more enplanements in April than in the same month last year. Its corporate cousin, American Airlines, has been so impressed by Eagle’s friendly reception locally it added two daily flights to the schedule, meaning travelers now have six shots at broadening their horizon.

Trey Green, who works at Antioch Community Church in Waco, said he flies Eagle every two to three months as lead-ins to trips nationally and abroad.

“Most flights are full,” he said. “All are 80 percent full at least.”

Green, 47, said he sometimes drives to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, but taking Eagle remains his first choice. He appreciates the free parking and the shorter lines going through security checks. Occasionally, he can find less expensive packages that originate in Waco, he said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

American Eagle added more daily flights between Waco and Dallas because of the route’s strong performance recently. American Airlines is also adding terminals in Dallas.

American Airlines spokeswoman Nichelle Tait said via email that the company had increased daily flight frequency out of Waco because of the route’s stellar performance. She said the D-FW circuit overall is performing well, and additional summer flights reflect that success.

American Airlines announced earlier this year it would be expanding at its most profitable airport, opening 15 new gates at D-FW by early June. The move was made to accommodate 100 additional daily flights on American Eagle over the summer, up from 800 a year earlier. American also announced it would be adding 23 new destinations and increasing flights to existing ones.

Company President Robert Isom told The Associated Press that D-FW would account for most of American’s growth this year and that early bookings and revenue for the new flights are higher than American’s systemwide average.

Waco Regional Airport Director Joel Martinez said Eagle was still making four daily flights from Waco in October and November. The airline examines occupancy rates every six months with an eye toward adjustments, Martinez said.

“They have several databases they pour stuff into,” he said.

The airport recorded 5,873 enplanements in April, a nearly 27 percent increase from the 4,633 in April last year, Martinez said. The airport’s ennplanement numbers include charters and general aviation traffic in addition to the commercial American Eagle flights.

“We have a diverse group of folks in and out of here, international travelers judging by the conversations I pick up when I’m in the terminal,” Martinez said. “We do get a lot of Magnolia-related and Baylor University-related traffic. We do our best to inquire, say, ‘What brings you to Waco?’ We see a lot of surfboards being carried by those wanting to visit our surf park,” BSR.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

The Waco Regional Airport has reported higher passenger counts in recent months compared to last year.

Enplanement increases can be associated with other benefits to the area economy, including revenue for hotels, bars, restaurants and other attractions. They also directly benefit the airport through per-passenger fees levied by the Federal Aviation Administration, which funds airport improvement projects.

“Every passenger not involved in a private corporate flight pays a $4.50-per-person facility charge,” Martinez said. “This includes airline passengers.”

The Waco airport collected $60,401 in FAA fee-related revenue during the first three months of this year, compared with $57,196 during the first quarter of 2018, Martinez said.

Passenger loads in April should provide another boost to airport coffers, he said. FAA allocations can fund runway and terminal upgrades, and last year, an FAA grant bought the airport a new firetruck priced at more than $800,000.

A total of $2.63 million from the FAA was designated for the truck, reconstruction of a taxiway and apron and to buy almost 40 acres of land near the north end of the runway as a shield against encroaching residential development in the China Spring area, Martinez said at the time.

Not only is Eagle adding flights out of Waco, it is scattering departures throughout the day to better accommodate travelers, Martinez said. On weekdays, Eagle flights depart at 5:15 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 10:41 a.m., 1:45 p.m., 4:50 p.m. and 6:35 p.m.

Flights into Waco Regional now have similar intervals.

Allen Samuels House of Travel executive Bambi Eskew said she likes what she is hearing about changes at Waco Regional. Eskew books trips and travels personally and has heard concerns from local travelers about weather-related flight delays and cancellations or being stuck cooling their heels at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for hours or overnight.

Those are the hazards when smaller commuter planes are the backbone of a schedule in which flights are few and far between, she said. Eagle uses 44-passenger Embraer ERJ-140 aircraft on its service between Waco and D-FW.

More flights mean more options and fewer risks of being stranded. Convenience and reliability are of paramount importance to business travelers, who want to get to their destination, get their work done and make same-day arrangements to get back to their corporate home, Eskew said.

Martinez said he continues to take steps to improve the travel experience.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

A vehicle drives past new advertisements near the Waco Regional Airport.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Vehicles drive past new advertisements near the Waco Regional Airport.

He, the airport advisory board and the city of Waco’s convention and marketing departments are looking into launching an advertising campaign inside the Waco Regional terminal, one that makes the most of Waco’s surging popularity as a tourist destination, attracting more than 2.5 million visitors a year. He said Todd Bertka, new director of the Waco Convention Center and Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, is involved, as is convention marketing director Carla Pendergraft, and others in the departments.

Pendegraft said it is too early to comment on specifics but that she is excited about the potential of a new campaign.

“We want advertising that best reflects opportunities available locally for those wanting to know what Waco has to offer,” Martinez said. “There are things here now that, frankly, no one visiting Waco would ever use.”

He said he believes a new city-directed program that brings in a broader base of businesses advertising in the airport could increase revenue from the current $80,000 to $140,000 annually.

editor's pick
12th Street bridge over I-35 about to close
 Mike Copeland  / 

With the widening of Interstate 35 through Waco now ramping up, the inevitable and for some the unthinkable is about to take place.

The bridge at South 11th and 12th streets that links the outskirts of Baylor University with downtown will close for good.

The deed is scheduled at 7 a.m. Monday, according to a press release from the Texas Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the $341 million widening of I-35 from North Loop 340 near Bellmead to South 12th Street. The process is scheduled to last almost five years.

“The closure will initially affect only the cross-traffic over the bridge,” the press release states. “Traffic will use the crossings at 17th and 18th streets to the south, or the crossing at Fourth and Fifth streets to the north.”

Eventually, at a time yet to be determined, crews will demolish the bridge, which will require interstate mainlane closures, according to the press release.

“The crossing will be rebuilt with I-35 going over 11th and 12th streets, and with enhanced pedestrian and bicycle access on 11th and 12th streets underneath I-35,” the press release states.

TxDOT spokesman Ken Roberts said he could not yet hazard a guess on a completion date.

Drivers should obey all posted work zone signs, as well as any law enforcement officers assisting with traffic control.

I-35 ramps

Starting at 10 p.m. Sunday, crews will permanently close two direct-access ramps between I-35 and Business 77.

Drivers that have used the elevated exit ramp 337B need to take the previous exit, 337A, and move through the ground-level intersections in order to turn left, crossing under I-35 and then connecting with Business 77.

Drivers coming from Business 77 that have used the elevated on-ramp to head south on I-35 will need to use the previous exit and use the ground-level intersection to turn south, according to a press release.

Work schedules are subject to change because of weather or other factors.

Photo gallery: Interstate 35 widening project

Interstate 35 widening project through Waco: May 2019