Sweet success permeated the Sears culture for decades, as inviting as the aroma of buttered popcorn and roasting cashews that greeted crowds at the Sears at 18th Street and Waco Drive once upon a time.
Seldom, it would seem, has such a big store looked so empty.
Sears at Richland Mall will close Sunday, ending with a whimper the retailer’s 90-year run in Waco. It joins hundreds of Sears locations nationwide as casualties. The bankrupt retailer that introduced the country to “wish books,” lifetime product guarantees and mail-order homes is leaving the building in Waco.
Metal garment carts, vacant jewelry cases and a smattering of merchandise were dwarfed by the 157,000-square-foot environs Thursday. Floor tiles and carpeting, stains now visible, seemed to roll on for acres. The escalator was not moving. Foot traffic was light.
“Someone should get on the intercom and say, ‘Where were you when we needed you?’ ” one shopper said.
Probably at Walmart or Target or ordering online, according to some who opine about Sears’ demise in a changing marketplace.
Kevin Hannes, 64, went to work at Sears in Richland Mall in 1984, four years after it opened to anchor the new retailing center at Highway 84 and State Highway 6, in what then was practically the outskirts of Waco.
Hannes’ last shift comes Sunday.
“I hate to see it go out this way. It’s really sad,” he said. “I’m just not used to all this open space.”
Sweet success permeated the Sears culture for decades, as inviting as the aroma of buttered popcorn and roasting cashews that greeted crowds at the Sears at 18th Street and Waco Drive once upon a time.
The store sold its last mattress, a Stearns & Foster display model, a couple of days earlier. The Chicago-based chain a month ago disconnected the store’s ordering system, so securing fresh stock was not an option, Hannes said.
Back in the 1980s, a job at Sears could launch a career, Hannes said. A salesperson in appliances could make $55,000 to $60,000 a year. Sales commissions and incentives were generous, and Sears offered top-notch benefits, even scholarships, to keep staffers happy and productive.
Perks started to disappear as the retailer faced lean years brought on by massive revenue losses. Hannes, who left Sears for Home Depot and Petco before returning in 2013, pinpointed gaffes he felt contributed to its decline.
The chain that championed the catalog should have more effectively moved into e-commerce, he said. In-store technology lagged, and Sears alienated customers by farming out delivery service to providers who chronically missed appointments and projected arrival times, he said.
In his view, the wheels came off when then CEO of Sears Holdings Eddie Lampert started selling off assets, including the Craftsman tool brand, Hannes said.
“About a year ago we started getting the idea this store was closing,” Hannes said.
The official word came down just days after another dismal holiday shopping season at Sears. The Waco store, which had dodged so many bullets, would be shuttered after liquidation sales. Locations in Killeen, Abilene, Richardson and Plano also pull the plug this month.
But Sears has not yet surrendered. It received a $5.2 billion infusion from Lampert and launched a new line of tools, the Craftsman Ultimate Collection, that targets professional mechanics. But Stanley Black & Decker, which acquired rights to the Craftsman name with a $900 million deal completed in 2017, has filed suit. It claims the collection violates the limited licensing agreement Stanley struck with Sears in the Craftsman deal.
Whatever happens with Sears nationally, Waco is losing its brand.
Dillard’s, meanwhile, has announced it will relocate its women’s, children’s and housewares store in Richland Mall to the Sears location. Dillard’s bought the Sears space in July.
It will maintain its men’s store that operates separately in the mall, Dillard’s spokeswoman Julie Johnson Guymon said last month. The 100,000-square-foot space Dillard’s is leaving will become available for lease.
This week, Guymon provided more specifics about the Arkansas-based retailer’s timeline.
“We are planning to use all the Sears building, exclusive of the tire and battery portion, which will be closed off and not accessible,” she said in an email response to questions about the potential for other users taking part of the Sears space.
“We will completely demolish and remodel the interior of the building to reflect our latest advances in store design,” Guymon said. “Our women’s selections, including footwear, handbags, accessories and beauty, will be located on the ground floor, and our home store will be on the second floor.”
Construction will start this fall, and the new store is expected to open in the spring of next year, she said.
Stacey Keating, spokeswoman for Tennessee-based CBL Properties, which owns Richland Mall, has said CBL will assist Dillard’s with the transition, though Dillard’s owns and controls the Sears space.
Though many consumers have written off Sears as a major player in recent years, Baylor University marketing professor Jim Roberts said its downfall still stings.
“It’s hard to separate Sears and mass marketing,” he said via email. “When Sears dies, a little bit of each of us dies with it. It’s like a favorite uncle you haven’t seen in a while, but you still feel worse off for it when he passes away. At one point in its storied history, it was considered a red-letter day the day the Sears catalog shipped. You could buy everything from canned goods and tools, to wedding dresses and even prefabricated houses back in the day.
“I feel a real loss when I walk by the shell of Sears that remains in Richland Mall. The history of American retailing and Sears are inextricably intertwined. Amazon will likely take its place, but I am not sure it can fulfill the story of the American Dream captured in the story of the once great American institution that was Sears.”
Sears will close in Waco one week after what has been described as a retailing apocalypse, with Victoria’s Secret, JC Penney and Gap announcing store closings nationwide. Richland Mall will not lose its JC Penney or Victoria’s Secret stores, CBL’s Keating said. But a Gap spokeswoman said the chain has not compiled its list of stores to be shuttered.
A Gap store operates at Waco’s Central Texas Marketplace.
Chip and Joanna Gaines on Friday continued their buying spree of historic properties with the purchase of the 151-year-old Fort House from Historic Waco Foundation.
The founders of the Magnolia TV and retail empire have not disclosed their plans for the house museum at 503 S. Fourth St., two blocks from their flagship Magnolia Market at the Silos.
But Magnolia spokesman John Marsicano said the Gaineses intend to “maintain the home in a way that carefully honors and thoughtfully celebrates its heritage.”
“Fort House is a cornerstone of this city, and we intend to keep it that way for years to come,” Marsicano said in a statement Friday.
Historic Waco Foundation director Jill Barrow declined to disclose the sale price of the historic home, but she said the proceeds would strengthen the nonprofit’s endowment and further its mission of education and preservation. The sale will help the organization repair and maintain its other four historic homes, among other goals, she said.
“This has not been an easy decision,” she said. “It’s a part of Waco’s history. But we have worked extremely closely with Magnolia, and we have put a ton of deed restrictions on it. It’s going to look very much like it is now. Magnolia has bought into maintaining the historical integrity of the house.”
The Fort House has a state historic marker, and major changes to the house’s appearance would require approval by the Texas Historical Commission.
The Gaineses, who gained fame as hosts of HGTV’s hit “Fixer Upper” series from 2014 to 2018, have continued to invest in Waco real estate. In addition to the silo complex and two historic homes operated as vacation rentals, Magnolia-related companies have bought the former Grand Karem Shrine building at 701 Washington Ave. from McLennan County. Last month, they purchased a building near the Silos for a coffee shop, and historic castle on Austin Avenue, which also has a historical marker.
The Fort House is by far the oldest structure the Gaineses have bought. William Fort, a prominent planter and businessman from Alabama, built the house with his wife, Dionita, in 1868, just after the Civil War. The two-story house was built in the Greek Revival style using local brick and cypress columns hauled here from New Orleans by boat and oxcart. The house originally stood on a six-acre site that was reduced to its current corner lot as Waco grew, according to an article from Baylor University’s wacohistory.org website.
William Fort, who had come to the area in 1854 with a caravan that included slaves for the cotton plantation south of town, prospered after the Civil War, becoming president of Waco National Bank and owner of the city’s first transit system. After Dionitia Fort died in 1910, the house passed to a series of owners who rented it out. It was in decline when the Junior League bought it in 1956 and hired a firm to restore it as the organization’s headquarters. But the Junior League soon decided to deed the house to the Waco Society for Historic Preservation, now Historic Waco Foundation. The house won a historic marker in 1970.
The foundation has long operated the Fort House as a museum, along with three other house museums, with recent exhibits on black history, baseball and other topics. However, in the past year it has been closed for repairs after a tree fell on the house, Barrow said.
In the meantime, Historic Waco Foundation officials have held community meetings to develop a strategic plan for the organization to make it more relevant to a broader audience.
“One of the overwhelming messages was that ‘You have too many old houses that tell the same story, and you need to sell off some of the homes,’ ” she said. “The sale of the house is going along with what the community was telling us to do.”
Three people are already preparing to face off in the March 2020 Republican primary for the Precinct 1 McLennan County Commissioners Court seat.
Incumbent Kelly Snell, 60, has decided not to seek re-election after three terms representing Precinct 1, which includes parts of Waco, Beverly Hills, Robinson, Golinda, Lorena, Bruceville-Eddy and Moody. Snell, a Republican, recently bought the Melody Ranch dance hall in Robinson with Waco Attorney Gerald Villarrial and said he plans to focus on that venture. Snell said he is not backing any candidates.
Official filing for the race will not start until November, but Republicans Chrissy Brault, Robert Cervenka and Jim Smith have announced their campaigns for the Precinct 1 seat and submitted paperwork do designate campaign treasurers.
George Brinegar, vice chairman of the McLennan County Republican Party, has announced his candidacy for the Precinct 3 seat, while Precinct 3 incumbent Republican Will Jones said he has not decided whether he will seek re-election.
The terms ends Dec. 31, 2020. Commissioners make about $100,000 a year.
Having served as Snell’s administrative assistant since 2012, Brault said she would be able to use her years of experience in the commissioner’s office to provide a seamless transition and ensure services are not interrupted. She has helped on road and bridge projects, worked with Precinct 1 constituents and city officials and helped review policies and budgets, Brault said.
“I have a servant’s heart, and that position is there to help people,” she said.
Brault, 33, said she also works outside her professional role to give back to the community and serve others. She works with Heart of Texas Moms of Multiples, serves in her church’s nursery and has coached with Heart of Texas Soccer.
She said she is running to continue to help the county grow and remain financially conservative, improve its roads, and ensure everyone’s voice is heard.
Brault said she would be accessible and think outside the box as a commissioner.
She said she also wants to use her role to show her four children what public service is.
Before working for the county, Brault worked in the Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo’s sponsorship department, at a local attorney’s office, and earned an associate degree in paralegal studies from McLennan Community College.
Cervenka, 64, said he brings more than 35 years of city government experience to the table.
A Baylor University graduate with a master’s degree in geology and a lifelong McLennan County resident, Cervenka is a consultant for cities and developers and has worked with the cities of West and Bellmead.
He spent more than 29 years working in the city of Waco planning department and then served as the city of Robinson’s city manager for seven years. He hopes to continue in a role as a civic leader, and serving as a commissioner is a logical next step, he said.
Cervenka said he has spent the past year meeting with residents throughout Precinct 1 in an effort to better know the area and its needs. He has met many residents who do not know who their commissioners is, and he would be committed to hearing their needs and representing everyone’s best interest, he said.
“Local government works best when public servants answer to the people they represent,” Cervenka said. “I am committed to working to bring positive leadership and consensus building to the commissioners court in an effort to improve conditions and make life better for all county residents.”
This is his first time running for office, but he said he does not expect there to be much of a learning curve since he has attended most commissioners court meetings over the past year.
Cervenka served as the Robinson city manager from 2009 to 2016, when the city ended his contract in a $69,000 separation agreement. The city opted to avoid potential litigation and buy peace by paying Cervenka his accrued and unused sick leave balance, according to the agreement.
Cervenka said he does not believe his exit in Robinson reflects negatively on him. He said he was ready to retire at that point and that the job of city manager is susceptible to politics.
Smith, 71, worked in the Robinson Independent School District for 34 years, including 11 years as a principal and 13 as superintendent. Smith retired from the district in 2003 and shortly thereafter spent eight years, or four terms, on the Robinson City Council. He has also been a reserve deputy sheriff for 38 years.
“I’m a fiscal conservative but I also recognize that sometimes money has to be spent,” he said. “You’ve got to do the best job with every penny that comes to you.”
Smith said he has lived in the precinct since 1970 and in the county since 1951, when he was 4 years old.
He enjoys the process of working with the public and the challenges that come with elected office and has always been interested in the workings of the commissioners court, he said.
“My experience working with the public for all the years I was in public schools then the city council would lend itself nicely to being able to continue to be responsive to what the county needs and what the citizens in the county need,” Smith said.
If elected, he wants to help advocate against unfunded mandates from the state, prepare for county growing pains, and adequately support local law enforcement.
“As we continue to grow and we continue to have people moving here I think the challenge is maintaining and keeping up our county roads and bridges,” Smith said. “I know that’s only a small part of what commissioners do, but I think that’s very, very important.”
While the race for Precinct 1 is already crowded, only the vice chair of the McLennan County Republican Party has announced plans to run for the Precinct 3 seat, held by Republican Will Jones since 2012. Jones said he is still considering whether to seek re-election.
Brinegar, 58, said he likes Jones but believes commissioners should be limited to two terms. If elected, he would serve a maximum of eight years, Brinegar said.
He was born and raised in McLennan County and retired from the U.S. Army in 2010 after 28 years of service. He is also the co-owner and co-founder of Searles Brinegar Family Home Care.
“I think our county is growing, is diverse and is on the verge of greatness,” he said. “But the next few years are very pivotal to our long-term success. The way we face the opportunities and challenges of the next few years is, I think, the secret.”
Brinegar said the county needs to face those challenges and opportunities with selfless service, financial stewardship and integrity. McLennan County is transitioning from a rural county to a metropolitan county, he said. The growth is especially relevant to Precinct 3, which includes West, Elm Mott, Lacy Lakeview and Bellmead, he said.
This is his first time to run for elected office.
If elected, he wants to ensure there is complete transparency on the court and an in-depth review of the way the roads and bridges are handled, he said.
“We’re on the right track but again it’s pivotal we stay on the right track and we develop the vision for efficiency and effectiveness,” Brinegar said.
Waco Independent School District Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson could face termination by the district’s board of trustees and an investigation by state education officials after his arrest Wednesday night in which a state trooper reported finding marijuana in Nelson’s vehicle.
Nelson was arrested after a traffic stop for driving in the passing lane on U.S. Highway 190, south of Hearne, about 55 miles southeast of Waco, a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman said. It is unclear why Nelson was traveling, but he was not in a district vehicle.
The superintendent took a personal day Friday and will not return to school before the school board holds a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. March 19 to discuss Nelson’s options, district spokesman Kyle DeBeer said.
Waco ISD’s spring break is next week, and March 18 is a student holiday. Staff will return to work that day, except Nelson.
Nelson did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The Texas Education Agency knows about Nelson’s arrest, but the agency could not comment further on the matter, spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said.
“We’re aware of the situation in Waco,” she said Friday afternoon.
A DPS trooper stopped Nelson on Wednesday night for driving in the passing lane of U.S. 190, a four-lane highway, department spokesman Sgt. Jimmy Morgan said.
The trooper smelled marijuana while approaching the 2017 GMC Yukon at about 10 p.m., Morgan said.
“The trooper conducted a search of the vehicle and located a small amount of marijuana, possession under 2 ounces, basically,” he said. “The marijuana was in the passenger seat.”
Nelson, 46, was booked into the Robertson County Jail in Franklin shortly before 11 p.m. Wednesday on a Class B misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana. Class B misdemeanors are punishable by up to 180 days in jail, a fine of up to $2,000, or both.
Morgan said there is no indication in the preliminary report that Nelson was smoking the marijuana at the time of the traffic stop. The trooper arrested Nelson and transported him to the jail, where he was released Thursday morning on a personal recognizance bond.
A court date will be set later, officials said. School board President Pat Atkins said he learned of the arrest Thursday because the district monitors the DPS Fingerprint-based Applicant Clearinghouse of Texas, which provides notifications on recent arrest activity of any school district employees.
Atkins said he spoke with Nelson on Thursday, and they discussed the upcoming board meeting. The superintendent told Atkins he was securing legal counsel and would work through the legal process.
The board will meet in closed session at the March 19 meeting and speak directly with Nelson about what happened in Robertson County, Atkins said. An action item will be on the agenda in case the board decides how to respond to Nelson’s arrest.
“I don’t expect the board to make a rush to judgment,” he said. “What I would expect is the board will gather all the information we can. We will give that information very thoughtful and deliberate consideration, and then we’ll make some decision based on what’s best for the district and the students.”
The school board last year extended Nelson’s contract through June 2023. Nelson’s base annual salary is $272,000, plus benefits.
Atkins said when the news broke Thursday he received several phone calls, text messages and emails, all of which were supportive of the board and the district. Some people asked how they could help or simply conveyed their faith in the board.
“There have been two interests that have been expressed,” he said. “On the one hand people recognize that he’s done some great work in this community and in the district and is a dynamic leader. On the other hand, people recognize that he’s in a unique position and is a role model for young people throughout the community, and we need to be cognizant of the message we send those young people. Most of the response I’ve gotten has fallen into one of those two camps.
“There was not a lot of reactionary, knee-jerk anger in any communications I had last night.”
Peaches Henry, president of the Waco chapter of the NAACP, said she is waiting to get all the facts before coming to any conclusions about Nelson.
Likewise, McLennan Community College President Johnette McKown said the matter should be left for the school board to decide. She added that she has had a positive working relationship with Nelson.
Atkins said someone asked him if there were any prior indications that anything like this might happen. The school district conducted an extensive background check on Nelson before hiring him and found he has always been a “stellar employee in every position” he has held around the state.
“There was no indication of anything like this,” Atkins said. “Dr. Nelson is one of the leading educators in the state.”
In 2014, the Texas Association of School Boards named Nelson as Superintendent of the Year when he led Laredo ISD.
Nelson’s educator certificates are still listed as valid on the TEA’s website and have not been flagged. Nelson is accused of possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana, a misdemeanor.
Misdemeanor allegations generally could be considered "Priority 2," according to the Texas Administrative code. Any alleged felony conduct or conduct that endangers students would be "Priority 1" under the code.
The State Board of Educator Certification could decide to investigate Nelson but has made no indication it intends to. Callahan said when the certification board does investigate, sometimes it is able to reach an agreement with the educator on possible sanctions. She said the process can take a long time.
Nelson is a San Antonio native who speaks Spanish. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Abilene Christian University in 1994, according to his district biography. He earned two master’s degrees from Texas A&M University in Commerce, as well as his doctorate in educational administration.
Estela Fajardo’s chances to fight deportation were diminished if not dashed Friday after a jury convicted her of Class A misdemeanor theft of more than $750 in what officials called a fencing operation for stolen property.
Jurors in 19th State District Court deliberated five hours before convicting the 46-year-old undocumented immigrant and mother of four U.S. citizens of the lesser misdemeanor charge.
Prosecutors Evan O’Donnell and Tiffany Clark charged Fajardo with state-jail felony theft of more than $2,500. However, the trial, from Fajardo’s perspective, actually was more about her attempt to stave off deportation, knowing that a conviction of any kind, especially a felony conviction, could ruin her chances to stay with her family in Waco.
Judge Ralph Strother sentenced Fajardo, who has lived in Waco 32 years, to one year in jail and fined her $1,000. However, because Fajardo has been jailed about three years on an immigration detainer, the judge gave her credit for the more than 1,000 days she has been in jail.
Her attorney, Gerald Villarrial, said with her trial and sentence behind her, Fajardo now will be placed in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials because of an existing deportation order in place. Villarrial said her immigration attorney will ask ICE officials to use discretion and allow Fajardo to remain in Waco and become a legal resident.
“I respect this jury because I know they worked very hard to come to their decision,” Villarrial said. “I am disappointed. I knew her before I started representing her. She was respected in our community. But I respect the jury’s decision.”
O’Donnell said prosecutors are “absolutely, 100 percent” satisfied with the outcome, despite the jury finding Fajardo guilty of the lesser charge. Evidence during the four-day trial showed Fajardo was in possession of about $4,600 in stolen goods that police officials traced back to home burglaries committed by two Waco men in late 2015 and early 2016.
O’Donnell said they tried Fajardo only on the stolen items for which police were able to locate the owners and return that property to them, including jewelry, TVs, laptops, cameras and other items. Many items seized from Fajardo’s Robinson Drive home were stolen, but police could not trace them back to the owners. Fajardo claimed she owned many of the items and did not know she was buying stolen goods.
“I think our victims needed their day in court,” O’Donnell said. “We would have loved to have resolved this case a long time ago if Ms. Fajardo was willing to accept her responsibility for her actions in this case. But that being said, we were going to move forward on the merits of the case.”
Fajardo owned a building on Waco Drive that she leased to a woman who bought gold, jewelry and other items, operating similarly to pawn shops. Fajardo also owns a moving company, a hair salon and a 20-acre farm in Lorena with cattle.
Fajardo testified she bought the items as part of her passion for collecting jewelry and coins and said she loves to shop at flea markets, garage sales and other places to feed her passion.
Sherry Kingrey, a former longtime Waco police detective, however, testified that she broke up a burglary ring, arrested two burglars and traced quite a bit of property stolen by the two men to Fajardo’s Robinson residence. One of the burglars, who is serving a prison term, told the jury he and his partner broke into dozens of homes and sold Fajardo from $6,000 to $7,000 worth of goods from their break-ins. He said he does not think Fajardo knew the property was stolen.
Terry Stevener, the father of Fajardo’s 4-year-old son, said he is disappointed with the way the criminal justice system treated Fajardo, who initially was arrested with the two burglars and the operator of the Waco Drive business on felony criminal conspiracy charges. Prosecutors later filed misdemeanor theft charges against Fajardo but increased the charge to a state-jail felony when she declined to plead guilty.
“This whole thing is crazy,” Stevener said. “This thing went from organized crime and it goes all the way down to a misdemeanor. They even offered that plea bargain in the beginning because they knew they didn’t have a case. What is the point of this case? She spent three years in jail. What did they have to gain? All they did was ruin her immigration chances. That is what all this is about. What else is there? She already did three years on something that carries a year.”
Fajardo’s supporters and members of the Waco Immigrants Alliance drew the media’s attention to Fajardo’s case, which includes Fajardo’s lawsuit alleging sexual abuse and mistreatment at the hands of guards at McLennan County’s privately run jail on State Highway 6.
Hope Mustakim of the Waco Immigrants Alliance, said she thinks Fajardo had a “50-50 chance” of successfully fighting deportation before her conviction Friday. Mustakim said she thinks jurors should have been told about Fajardo’s immigration status.
“I think they would have more carefully considered their decision if they could have considered the implications it had on her life,” she said. “They should have been able to know that what they were voting on meant she likely was going to be exiled from her family and removed from this country.”