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Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Baylor forward Freddie Gillespie pulls down a rebound over Oklahoma State guard Jonathan Laurent, left, in the first half.

City officials: Clean Water Act rollback shouldn't affect protections for Waco's drinking water
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

Officials said a recent rollback of Environmental Protection Agency rules on waterways and wetlands will not change hard-won protections specific to the Bosque River, which feeds the city of Waco’s water supply.

State guidelines and legislation passed in 2001, along with settlement agreements to Clean Water Act lawsuits the city filed in 2004 against dairies along the river, limited phosphorous runoff from cow manure, which in turn had fed algae blooms in the river and in Lake Waco that harmed fish and the water supply.

City Manager Wiley Stem III said he does not expect the changes to federal Clean Water Act protections to affect the protections specific to the Bosque that the city worked hard to establish.

“ It’s important to us that it (the Bosque watershed) be managed properly and the industries up there are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Stem said.

Along with legal action, largely targeting dairies along the North Bosque in Erath County, the city opened a dissolved air flotation plant in 2010 that removes geosmin, a compound put out by algae that is responsible for throwing off the taste of the water.

“The river has a certain assimilative capacity for phosphorus,” Stem said. “If you exceed that, you get algae blooms, you start losing dissolved oxygen and it starts impacting the quality of your fish species.”

Dairies have built better retention control structures to prevent waste from spilling into the Bosque during storms. They test soil for phosphorus levels and truck excess manure to be applied to fields outside the watershed.

The city meets regularly with the Texas Association of Dairymen to discuss issues as that come up.

“Since about 2008 or 2009, we’ve worked really hard to get the standards upgraded for the producers on the Bosque,” Stem said. “We’ve got a pretty stable set of regulations, a stable environment for the dairymen, and something we’re pretty proud of.”

While the Bosque’s protections remain in place, Texas A&M University environmental law professor Gabriel Eckstein said the EPA rollback could have broader consequences. About half the country’s wetlands and about 18% of the country’s river miles would lose protections, Eckstein said.

Many wetlands adjacent to a protected body of water are no longer protected, he said. The change ignores the fact that, despite the lack of a visible connection, the two bodies of water affect each other.

“What is a wetland? It is the surface expression of an aquifer, groundwater that just happens to go about to the surface of the land,” Eckstein said. “Now you have groundwater and wetlands that are not going to be included under these wetlands.”

Other waterways, including irrigation canals, that drain directly to protected waterways or their tributaries also are losing protections, he said.

Texas Farm Bureau spokesman Gary Joiner said the organization is in favor of the changes. He said the water rules were too broad and opened up stock ponds and other small bodies of water on farmland to unnecessary regulation.

“That was really the concern under the old rules,” Joiner said. “We think these are appropriate definitions. We feel the new rule will protect navigable waters.”

Jay Bragg, an associate director for commodity and regulatory activities at the Farm Bureau, said he does not foresee the changing regulations affecting the Bosque’s protections.

“State regulations were already more stringent,” Bragg said. “There’s no need for the federal regulation when we already have the state regulations in place that I think are a lot more responsive to the local needs.”

Robert Doyle, Director for Baylor University’s Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research, said he is concerned about the long-term consequences of the EPA rollback.

“We don’t have a good historical track record,” Doyle said. “We tend to damage the things we are allowed to damage. I’d love to believe we’re smart and good enough to do the right thing … but I think the biggest factor is the EPA telling people what you can’t put in the water and air.”

When working in the Galveston Bay area, Doyle argued that wetlands there should be protected because wetlands filter out phosphorus and nitrogen.

“These small wetlands impact the water quality and quantity of the Galveston Bay,” Doyle said. “The biggest impact (of the EPA rollback) would be on these smaller bodies of water that aren’t linked to the ocean, rivers or lakes. As ecologists, we think everything is linked. It’s hard for us to not see the connections.”

Midway students, teachers work with architects on designs for CTE expansion
 Brooke Crum  / 

Huddled together around a large white table covered in scraps of tracing paper, Midway High School teachers, administrators and students worked with architects and designers last week to draft plans for the school’s new $31.5 million career and technical education addition.

Money for the expansion of the popular CTE program’s facilities comes from a $148 million bond package Midway Independent School District voters passed in November. The bond issue will pay for five other major projects, including construction of a new elementary school in Hewitt and renovations of three existing schools.

The school district has been working with the Huckabee architect firm to design the projects. Last week, architects and designers with the firm visited Midway High School to participate in the charrette process with faculty and students, wherein the teachers and students provided immediate feedback to designers on the development of the CTE addition.

Midway ISD plans to complete the design phase of the project by the end of the year and break ground on the new CTE building and the agriculture building addition in January, Superintendent George Kazanas said. The construction would be complete by fall 2022.

Senior and Class President Ben White participated in the charrette process last week because he has taken all the computer science classes available to Midway High students. He has been involved in the district’s science, technology, engineering and math program since middle school, and plans to study physics at either Brigham Young University in Utah or the University of Texas at Austin.

“I feel like it was good to get a student perspective because even though these teachers are the experts in what it actually takes to learn the material, they don’t really know what it takes to be a student under the material itself,” he said.

White said the major issues he feels need to be addressed in the CTE program, which includes STEM classes, is the layout of the classrooms themselves and the size of the classrooms. Computer science classrooms need to be as big as possible so students have room to move around all the equipment, and those classrooms should be near the engineering classrooms to allow for better collaboration, he said.

Right now, the various classes in the CTE program are spread all over the high school, but the design the district settled on last week would place all CTE classrooms in one building, with related subjects sharing a collaboration space between their classrooms.

“It’s probably the best design possible for collaboration between the different sectors of STEM,” White said. “The biggest drawback to what we have right now in the program is that there’s either just not enough room to work on things or the room that we have isn’t optimal for what we do.”

Senior Tyler Johnston agreed with her classmate. While she took as many engineering classes as possible, Johnston also participated in the school’s agriculture science program all four years of high school, so she provided feedback on the addition to the agriculture building. But for the science and engineering classrooms, she said she wants to make sure they have as much ventilation as possible because students are often cutting materials or spray-painting.

Both seniors regret they will not be at Midway High when the additions are complete, but they know it will benefit future students.

“It will be good for all the incoming students, and it will allow for more expansion in other areas, too,” Johnston said.

If they were both incoming freshman when the CTE building is complete, White and Johnston said they likely would have gotten involved in the CTE program earlier.

“We’re adding a lot more prevalence to the program,” White said. “We’re making it to where it’s more than just a multiplier to add to your average.”

An entire wing dedicated to CTE will not only make the program more visible, but it will attract more students because many of the rooms will have transparent walls so other students can see what the robotics team is working on or what the engineering students are building, he said.

The students are not the only ones thrilled to see the changes made to the CTE program. Journalism and yearbook teacher Jamie Beavers, who also teaches commercial photography, said she is looking forward to being able to add space, including a photo studio, so she can teach more students.

Robotics and engineering teacher Brady Gibson said he wants to make sure the school builds a dirty lab for students, which is a shared work space for students to work on projects. Having a dirty lab would eliminate the need for duplicate tools for separate classes and would give students some autonomy to work on their projects in a dedicated space.

College and Career Readiness Director Ashley Canuteson said the physical proximity of the various programs under the CTE umbrella will allow for more organic collaboration among students and staff that they may have missed out on before.

On April 1, Huckabee staff will be back at Midway to finalize the minute details of the plans for the addition, which will be adjacent to the front entrance to Midway High.

4 vying for judicial slot in Republican primary aim to cut court backlog
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Four attorneys seeking to be the next judge of Waco’s 19th State District Court say they want to continue their public service by modernizing courtroom technology and aggressively tackling a case backlog to decrease the jail population and case disposition time.

Kristi DeCluitt, Michael Flynn, Susan Kelly and Thomas West will square off in the March 3 Republican primary to succeed the retiring Judge Ralph Strother in one of McLennan County’s two felony courts.

Strother, appointed to the bench in 1999 by former Gov. George W. Bush, will be 77 when he retires at the end of this year. Mandatory retirement age for state district judges is 75, but the law allowed Strother to complete his four-year term.

At the end of the most recent campaign finance reporting period last week, West held a slight fundraising edge over Kelly and also led the four candidates in campaign spending.

West, 55, a former prosecutor who has been a criminal defense attorney for the past 19 years with the Dunnam & Dunnam law firm, collected $44,877.23 in contributions while spending $37,997,15.

Kelly, 58, also a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, reported $43,756.61 in campaign contributions and $32,580.69 in expenditures, while DeCluitt, 49, a former McLennan County justice of the peace, listed $39,518 in contributions and $11,737.70 in expenditures.

Flynn, 59, a retired Army lieutenant colonel in the service 34 years, reported $715 in contributions while listing $14,218.56 in expenditures, including $13,503.56 of his own money.

West worked as a felony prosecutor and misdemeanor chief in the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office and has served as the municipal court prosecutor in Lorena since 2001. He also has been associate city judge in Hewitt for two years and said he has received 32 hours of current judicial training since 2018.

West is certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and said he has participated in more than 120 jury trials. He is a deacon at First Baptist Church of Woodway and an advisory board member of The Salvation Army.

“The true characteristics of a judge begin with education, followed by trial experience, the appropriate judicial temperament, courage and integrity, suitability to the workload, all wrapped up in community service,” West said. “I believe a judge is a servant to the citizens of McLennan County and therefore responsible for the protection and defense of both the U.S. and Texas constitutions and rule of law. Experience is important, but it’s the right experience that makes the difference.”

Calling himself “battle tested,” West said he has the experience to “make split-second decisions in trial under fire correctly so a guilty person doesn’t go free on the streets.”

“I have a unique combination of knowledge of the law and extensive practical experience in multiple legal contests which sets me apart from the other candidates,” West said. “I have the right experience to make a difference in the efficiency of the courtroom, ensuring a fair trial for all parties and to eliminate the backlog of cases to save McLennan County citizens’ tax dollars.”

West proposes to modernize the court systems by digitizing the process to create a paperless system.

“Technology is at the door of the courtroom right now and it needs to come in,” he said.

Kelly, a defense attorney and former award-winning prosecutor, also served as staff attorney on Waco’s 10th Court of Appeals. She also is certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. She said her unique experience in various phases of the criminal justice system makes her candidacy stand apart.

“My opponents might be fine people, attorneys and Republicans, and I believe I am all that, too, but much more,” Kelly said. “The 19th District Court is dedicated to the most serious cases in our county. So my experience and my training, which includes thousands of state cases, prosecutions, defense work and, specifically, at the appellate level, gives me the experience and leadership to go in and command that courtroom in the most serious of cases.”

Kelly said her work as a former appellate court staff attorney will help her traverse the legal minefields that frequently lead to case reversals based on judge’s errors.

“When you go in and try a two-week felony case and you don’t handle the issues properly and it gets appealed to that very court I worked at, that case is coming back if there is error,” Kelly said. “The county has an opportunity to elect a person with the kind of experience to avoid numerous reversals and retrials. That costs thousands if not a million dollars.

“I am not saying I am not going to make a mistake, for heaven’s sake. But if you needed heart surgery and you had a choice between a heart surgeon who has performed hundreds of heart surgeries or just a good doctor, you would want the most technically trained specialist.”

Kelly is a director for the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and is an instructor in Huntsville at trial advocacy programs. She said she is also active in the community, donating her time and money to Fuzzy Friends, the American Cancer Society, Historic Waco Foundation, Waco Cultural Arts Fest and the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society.

“I will continue to give and I will work hard,” she said. “This is what I have been training to do for the past 33 years.”

DeCluitt won the endorsement of the Waco Police Association in the race. She has been an assistant city attorney in Waco since May 2016. Before that she served as McLennan County justice of the peace for Precinct 1, Place 1, from April 2006 to January 2015.

She also served as an assistant city attorney in College Station for a year and was a McLennan County assistant district attorney from 2000 to 2006.

“I am the only candidate who has over eight years on the bench as a justice of the peace in the largest precinct in McLennan County,” DeCluitt said. “I have proven my electability. I have won every race I have ever entered, and I am the only candidate with a proven conservative record. I have been very active in the Republican Party for over 20 years, and I have been a public servant my entire legal career.”

DeCluitt would push to improve technology in the courtroom and work to streamline the criminal justice system to help shrink the docket and shorten the time between arrest and trial. 19th State District Court has 1,335 pending felony cases on its rolls, and DeCluitt said a little more cooperation between the court, DA’s office and the defense bar could improve the overall system.

“As JP, I introduced the first dismissal docket for that court,” she said. “That cleared the books of cases that had been there for decades, in some instances. You just can’t allow multiple resets on felony cases. You have to keep the docket moving. There are more than 25 prosecutors in the DA’s office now, and they should always be ready to go to trial.”

As assistant city attorney, DeCluitt focuses on economic development, hotels and economic incentives, the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, cemeteries and libraries.

“It is interesting being involved in Waco’s renaissance,” she said. “Basically we have never seen this type of growth, and I wrote up most of the contracts and helped negotiate many of those deals.”

Flynn joined the Army in 1983, graduated from Baylor University Law School in 1988 and served as an Army lawyer until 2016, including tours in Bosnia and Iraq.

He served 28 years on active duty representing the government as a Judge Advocate General and six years in the Army Reserve. While he was in the Army Reserve, he became chief of the criminal law division.

Flynn practiced law in Waco from 1996 to 2001 after he left active duty. He ran unsuccessfully against former Democratic McLennan County District Attorney John Segrest in 1998.

“I believe I have the right experience to be able to go in and move cases faster,” Flynn said. “That’s what I did in the Army. Basically, I would clean up the backlog of cases and they would send me to another location to clean up the backlog, and eventually, they put me in charge of all the criminal law for the Army Reserve.”

Flynn said he practiced under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for most of his career, but it is similar to the Texas Penal Code. There are few difference in military rules and Texas rules of evidence, he said.

Flynn said it concerns him about how long many criminal defendants languish in jail while waiting for their day in court.

“I would implement a lot of recommendations from the Office of Court Administration and the National Center for State Courts,” Flynn said. “They have standards and best practices and good ideas about helping getting courts involved in the efficient and effective administration of the docket. They help identify some particular practices that contribute to delays.”

Flynn said he did not hold fundraisers or solicit donations because he has “concerns about the perception that comes with getting money from people, particularly people who are criminal law practitioners.”

“I think there is a perception among everyday voters about the impact of contributions on elected officials,” he said.

Police: Drugs may be linked to shooting that killed 1, wounded 3
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

A Friday night shooting that killed one man and injured three others may be linked to the sale of illegal drugs, Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said Saturday.

Multiple spent casings of ammunition, along with drugs and firearms, were discovered inside a duplex home near North 19th Street and Trice Avenue late Friday after the shooting, he said.

“It was obvious that multiple rounds had been fired during the shooting,” Swanton said in a statement. “It is believed the shootings took place both inside and outside of the home.”

Police were called to the home around 8:45 p.m. following reports of gunfire. They discovered a man outside the duplex at 1903 Trice Ave. who had been shot multiple times, and another gunshot victim trying to flag down cars at North 22nd Street and Lasker Avenue. An American Medical Response ambulance took the men to a local hospital, and a third man suffering from a gunshot wound arrived at the hospital in a private vehicle, Officer Garen Bynum said.

Meanwhile, police surrounded the house and used a loudspeaker with the suspicion that someone was inside, police said.

Around 10 p.m., officers forced their way inside and found the man who was shot dead. Swanton said the body was sent off for an autopsy.

At least two of the injured victims remained at local medical facilities Saturday morning. Swanton said both men are listed in critical condition.

Names of the victims were not available Saturday.

“It is believed that the use/sale/distribution of drugs played a role in this shooting,” Swanton stated. “Multiple officers and units assisted at all of the scenes.”

The shootings Friday night marked at least the fifth reported shooting in Waco in the past three days.

Two people were shot and wounded Wednesday morning in the Mountainview neighborhood in West Waco, and more gunshots were reported about six hours later at a home in North Waco in the 3700 block of Ethel Avenue.

The North Waco home was targeted again by gunfire Thursday night. Police reported between 35 to 40 gunshots were fired into the same home, but no injuries were reported.

Police reported another shooting near a residence at North 28th Street and Colonial Avenue at about 2:30 a.m. Friday morning, police said. No injuries were reported in that shooting and no suspect description was available.

“We are aware of multiple shootings that have occurred over the past week,” Swanton said. “It is too early in the investigations to determine if they are all, or in part connected.”

No suspect description in the Friday night shooting was available as of Saturday. Swanton said all of the shootings remain under investigation.

River Square Center downtown hitting auction block
 Mike Copeland  / 

Covered in maroon brick and anchored by Spice Village and Diamondback’s upscale restaurant, River Square Center downtown will hit the online auction block early next month carrying a minimum bid of $2.2 million.

The rambling two-and-three-story building fronting Franklin Avenue and backed by Mary Avenue in many ways birthed the downtown awakening with its opening in 1995, though the building itself dates to 1906. Local nightclub owner Randy Roberts and builder and entrepreneur Michael Clark collaborated to convert a rusted-out warehouse district to inner-city respectability.

Now, 25 years later, the center is owned by LNR Properties LLC, of Miami Beach, Florida, and is appraised at $5 million for tax purposes, according to McLennan County Appraisal District records.

Ten-X Commercial Real Estate is sponsoring an online auction March 9 through 11, and is offering property tours Wednesday, Feb. 19 and March 4.

Its tout sheet urges qualified investors to bid on River Square Center, “a 92,087-square-foot mixed-use, office and retail complex located in Waco, Texas.” It says the property features 65,856 square feet of first-and-second-story retail space and 26,231 square feet of third-story office space. River Square is 76.4% occupied by nine tenants and anchored by Spice Village, “a local clothing and decor boutique who recently signed a five-year lease extension,” according to promotion material.

Jennifer Wilson, who founded Spice Village in 1997 and has directed its growth to more than 60 boutiques spread over 30,000 square feet, could not be reached for comment on her status at River Square Center.

Darlene Schoenrock, general manager of Ninfa’s restaurant at South Third Street and Mary Avenue, practically sharing a wall with Diamondback’s next door, said the sale of River Square Center would change things little, if any, at the Tex-Mex restaurant that experiences lines and waiting lists on many weekends, as students, tourists and convention attendees regularly pack the place.

“Things like that usually impact us on a smaller scale because we own our part of the building, and have since we’ve been here, 20-something years,” Schoenrock said. “We’re a separate entity. We maintain our own building from roof to floor, and business is great.”

Schoenrock said with a laugh she hopes her prediction holds more truth than a similar observation she made several years ago, when Chip and Joanna Gaines announced their plans for Magnolia Market at the Silos, the 30,000-visitors-a-week attraction at Sixth Street and Webster Avenue.

“That’s so funny,” she said. “Back in the day, before the Silos, I said I don’t really see it impacting us because it’s several blocks away.

“Those are the most bitter words I’ve ever had to eat.”

Auction promoters take note of the explosive growth downtown.

“Additional retailers at the property include popular local bars, restaurants and shopping that are frequently trafficked by employees working downtown and tourists,” the marketing description states.

It adds the property has benefited from area revitalization and the emergence of Magnolia Market at the Silos.

Magnolia Market has been joined by Magnolia Press, a coffee shop that is part of an ongoing $10 million expansion set to reconfigure the entrance and add new attractions.

The auction-related tout sheet states 12,744 people are employed within a mile of the center, 1,020 businesses operate in that radius, the median age is 25 years and 7 months, and 6% of those living within a mile have earned a college degree or more.

Waco businessman Trent Weaver, co-owner of W Promotions, a retailer of shirts, banners and car wraps headquartered at 906 Austin Ave., said he has asked his real estate agent, Hunter Harrell, to nail down all the particulars about the property and what will be included in the auction.

Weaver has interest in his neighbor, as he owns the 60,000-square-foot two-story building next door to River Square, stretching from University Parks Drive to South Second Street, and also backing up to Mary Avenue. Called Stone’s Throw, the property’s tenants include Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, Mamaka Bowls, Sub Zero Nitrogen Ice Cream, Bangkok Royal restaurant, Giddy Up Glamour, Pura Vida Day Spa and Salon and the Waco Tours headquarters.

“Another project I’m working on is a double-deck patio on the Mary Avenue side to complement the ongoing redevelopment of that street,” Weaver said. “I plan to have a barber shop, a high-end nail salon and a nice bar.”

Weaver said he recently received an email about the auction.

“I’ve requested more information because I’ve not seen a lot of details about rental rates,” he said. “I’d like to know more about the tenants making up that 76% occupancy and the length of their leases.”

Harrell, meanwhile, said he works with investors in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, including cash buyers he will share information with.

He said vacancies in River Square Center are concentrated on the top floor, which is populated by professional offices and not retail or dining users.

“That’s somewhat of a problem because larger office tenants need more parking than is available at River Square Center,” Harrell said.

Waco businessman Bill Clifton, whose Clifton Group now occupies space at Fourth Street and Austin Avenue, had an office on the top floor of River Square Center about 10 years ago. He said the accommodations were well maintained and convenient to other downtown attractions.

“I would hope a local person would buy the place. I like to see local money involved in such projects, and the perfect example is Chip and Joanna,” Clifton said, clarifying he was not suggesting the Gaineses bid on River Square.

Clifton said is somewhat surprised River Square’s occupancy rate is not closer to 90% given its prime location and the activity generated by Spice Village, Ninfa’s and Cricket’s Grill & Drafthouse.

Waco real estate agent Bland Cromwell brokered the sale of River Square Center to Houston-based Stonehenge Development in 2007, one of several ownership changes involving the complex in recent years. Mike Clark, whose vision for the dilapidated, pigeon-infested warehouse led to creation of River Square Center, was the seller, the Tribune-Herald reported.

Cromwell often represents Waco businessmen Clifton and Gordon Robinson in real estate-related matters, including investment purchases. He said auctions can produce legitimately sweet deals or serve only as marketing ploys to gauge interest in a particular piece of property. He said the Robinsons may have interest in bidding, if the numbers make sense.

Controversy surrounded River Square Center in 2015, when another Houston-based development group, Wallace Bajjali Development Partners, collapsed with the resignation of principals David Wallace and Costa Bajjali. They had announced multimillion-dollar projects downtown, and River Square Center was among the property holdings they had secured.

The Tribune-Herald reported Wallace Bajjali’s SWB Waco River Square firm had bought River Square in 2008 but had been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since 2013 after defaulting on a bank loan.

Lenders bought back River Square in November 2015 in a sale on the steps of the McLennan County Courthouse, according to records.

Today, River Square again finds itself at the epicenter of downtown progress.

A $35 million Embassy Suites Hotel and a $19 million Hyatt Place hotel are planned across Mary Avenue from River Square. They have each received pledges of public grants and combined would bring almost 300 rooms and structured parking.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte/  

New Coke could not compete with the appeal of Coca-Cola Classic, and some highly caffeinated sodas did not catch on the way their energy drink counterparts would.