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McLennan County calls $14.5 million November bond election for zoo expansion
 Mike Copeland  / 

A new exhibit showcasing penguins that can tolerate the Texas heat would anchor a new exhibit at Cameron Park Zoo, part of a bond-financed upgrade voters will consider in less than three months.

McLennan County Commissioners agreed Tuesday to set Nov. 5 as Election Day on the matter. County Judge Scott Felton called the bond issue “tax-rate neutral,” as approval would not require a tax increase. He said some existing bond-related debt is scheduled to “roll off” county books in July next year, paid in full, and the zoo debt would replace it.

“Residents will not see an increase in property taxes to repay the zoo bonds,” Felton said during an interview. “I think it’s good for my grandkids, but it was our job to put it on the ballot and let taxpayers decide if they want it or not. If they want it, we will fund the bonds. If they don’t, we will not.”

An exhibit featuring the endangered black footed African penguin would anchor the addition and cost an estimated $4.5 million. An education and veterinary complex would carry a combined $8.3 million price tag.

Funds also will go for an animal commissary and hoof-stock barn.

The proposed $14.5 million bond issue includes a 10% contingency fee should construction estimates prove low.

Terri Cox, new executive director of the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society, told commissioners that longtime zoo benefactors Carol and Dutch Schmidhauser have pledged $1 million toward the improvements. Half would go to buy medical supplies and equipment for the veterinary hospital, while the balance is designated for “brick-and-mortar” elements, Cox told commissioners.

Another $220,000 was raised at the annual Zoobilee celebration, she said.

Cox said the zoo will award contracts in four phases, possibly giving more and smaller construction companies a chance to participate.

“This is good for the community and expedient to getting it built,” she said.

The project is scheduled for completion between fall 2021 and spring 2022.

Cameron Park Zoo attracted 360,661 visitors in 2018, making it the second most popular tourist attraction locally, behind only Magnolia Market at the Silos, according to a presentation by Cox and interim zoo director Johnny Binder, who last week appeared before the Waco City Council.

Council members voiced support for calling the election.

Cox said 51% of those entering the zoo gates are from outside Waco. A fact sheet states 8% are from outside the state.

Much of the presentation focused on the role the city, county and private funding sources have played in moving the 52-acre zoo forward since a $9.5 million bond issue made its opening possible in 1993.

Three major expansions have been made possible through a combination of countywide bond issues, interest on bond proceeds and private donations, according to the fact sheet. These include the herpetarium, Brazos River Country area and the two-phased Asian Forest, zoo officials said.

The city of Waco budgets $2.7 million annually to subsidize the zoo’s operation.

That in mind, the zoo has proposed increasing adult admission by $2, to $12, in the new budget year. Also under consideration is increasing the cost of admission by 50 cents per person each of the next five years.

“We still consider Cameron Park Zoo a lot of value for the money, and even with the increases, admission will be below that of other zoos around the state,” Cox said in an interview. “We continually hear that from visitors.”

The fact sheet shows adult, child and senior prices at 11 Texas zoos and aquariums sanctioned by the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums. At the low end is the $7-per-adult admission fee at the Ellen Trout Zoo in Lufkin, with the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose the most costly at $25.95.

Other adult admission fees include Abilene at $8, El Paso at $12, Cameron Park Zoo at $12, Brownsville at $13, Dallas at $15, Fort Worth at $16, Houston at $19.95, and San Antonio at $18.99. The Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, which charges $14.50 for adults, is probably most comparable to Cameron Park Zoo, officials said.

Commissioner Kelly Snell suggested Cameron Park Zoo, like the Caldwell Zoo, offer admission discounts to county residents.

editor's pick
Suspension Bridge overhaul slated to go to bid soon, start in November
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

The Waco Suspension Bridge is a registered historic landmark, a local gathering place, a wedding venue and a finish line, and at the end of the month, a major overhaul of the span will go out to bid.

All of the above will be on hold after November, when work on the bridge rehabilitation project is slated to start. An engineer performed a structural analysis in 2017 that revealed corrosion and moisture issues worsened by wood and steel cables that are losing their elasticity.

The overhaul will include replacing the bridge’s deck and cables, strengthening its anchors on both banks and repairs to its anchor houses.

City senior parks planner Tom Balk said the project has been delayed in part because of other projects including the Doris Miller Memorial nearby, and in part because of the historical requirements the work must meet.

Elements like the design of the railing need to be up to modern-day standards without violating the Texas Historical Commission’s standards on modifying designated structures.

“It’s character versus materials. What’s the balance there?” Balk said. “There’s been some conversation there about that in the design side.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Supporters line up on the Waco Suspension Bridge before a parade July 31 for the Southwest Region Little League tournament.

When the Tax Increment Financing Zone board signed off on $5.5 million in bond funding for the project in late 2017, he said he expected work to start as soon as early this year. By last year, he knew it would take longer to get the historical details of the renovation settled, he said this week.

“We go through a descending order of what the critical design needs are, dealing with the structural aspects first and then kind of working our way to more of the aesthetic and architectural features, which are also extremely important on a project of this nature,” Balk said.

Interim Parks Director Jonathan Cook said 30 to 40 events make use of the bridge each year, including the Brazos Nights concert series, the Silo District marathon and the Ironman 70.3 Waco triathlon, which will take place in October, before construction starts in November.

“That’s going to be our drop-dead last event,” Cook said. “We’re going to accommodate it this year.”

Events diverted

Some events will be diverted, possibly to Cameron Park or, in the case of the triathlons, crossing the Washington Avenue Bridge. Indian Spring Park on the west end of the bridge and Martin Luther King Jr. Park on the east end are expected to remain open during the work.

“We’re not going to close the park area,” Cook said. “We feel it’s a scenario we’re going to be able to balance.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

An overhaul of the Waco Suspension Bridge, including replacement of its cables and deck, is set to go to bid this month, with work starting by November.

The bridge will mostly remain closed after this year’s Ironman, Balk said. The project will also affect boat traffic during certain phases. He said while he estimates the work will take about two years, that timeline could change. The river level rising could hurt progress during some phases of work, he said.

Crews will build piles under the bridge to temporarily support it as they remove and replace its steel cables, which show signs of aging after a century of expanding in the heat and contracting in the cold. Balk said a structural engineer who inspected the cables found they would last another 10 years before they could deteriorate enough to warrant closing the bridge to the public. While the bridge opened in 1870, its cables were replaced in 1914, when other repairs and upgrades were also made.

“A little bit of stretch is part of the design, but over time they lose the elasticity,” Balk said. “Large crowds on the bridge could be a problem at that point.”

The new cables will significantly increase the bridge’s load capacity, Balk said.

New decking

Next, the wooden decking will be removed and replaced, likely with a fiberglass pan and concrete boards stamped to resemble wood. The walkways along each side of the bridge would be replaced with a tropical hardwood.

Balk said the original dense hardwood deck came from slow-growth trees that are more difficult to come by in 2019, and the material was treated with creosote, which is likely carcinogenic and no longer considered safe.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

An overhaul of the Waco Suspension Bridge, including replacement of its cables and deck, is set to go to bid this month, with work starting by November.

“We get calls,” Cook said, referring to the deck’s deteriorated state. “During events, we’ll have boards that pop up. It’s something that we pay attention to, but we are seeing more seepage come through.”

Moisture in the wood has corroded the long steel beams, called cords, over time. Balk said the corrosion is currently manageable, and the cords can be repaired once the wood is removed. He said less absorbent decking would prevent it from happening again.

“The cost of the project would go up exponentially if those had to be replaced,” Balk said.

Cable anchors

On both banks, the bridge’s cables run into toll houses and down 15 feet into the ground. The new cables will be secured with concrete anchors about 5 feet across and drilled into bedrock.

Balk said smaller improvements will include drainage work, repairs to the retaining walls and the brick and plaster on the cable houses, which have have degraded over time because of moisture.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

An overhaul of the Waco Suspension Bridge, including replacement of its cables and deck, is set to go to bid this month, with work starting by November.

Touches like patterned concrete that mimics wood can help preserve a structure’s historic merit, said Elise King, design historian for Waco’s Historic Landmark Preservation Commission. King said she has not seen the final design for the Suspension Bridge, however.

“It can be a very tricky, nuanced approach, but that’s the recommendation so that there isn’t any confusion between what’s old and what’s new,” King said. “But from a design perspective, it can be a really invigorating challenge.”

The commission’s standards stipulate that any additions or alterations should be clearly different from the old components, yet still harmonize with the original.

“It’s more than a historic monument, it’s really this active public space,” King said of the bridge. “It’s so interesting that we have this great asset in the city already that facilitates that kind of engagement.”

The commission will vote on whether to approve the design.

“It’s much more for the city and the people that live in it, and that’s fascinating for me,” King said. “It’s an identity-giving element for Waco. It’s great that it’s so much more than just this entity.”

Historic Texas bridges

Sparks Engineering, which created the design, has done similar work on two other Texas bridges: the Hay Street Bridge in San Antonio, built in 1881, and the 640-foot long Faust Street Bridge in New Braunfels, built in 1887.

Sparks Engineering President Patrick Sparks said suspension bridges are nothing unique, but the Waco Suspension Bridge’s history, and its renovation in 1914, make its rehabilitation an interesting case.

“It’s probably the greatest historic bridge in the state,” Sparks said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

An overhaul of the Waco Suspension Bridge, including replacement of its cables and deck, is set to go to bid this month, with work starting by November.

Testing revealed the anchor on the downtown side of the bridge was reinforced with concrete in 1914 to increase the bridge’s capacity, but for whatever reason the work wasn’t mirrored on the other bank.

“There were a lot of modifications done,” Sparks said. “Part of our work is diagnosing changes that occurred over time so we actually understand what’s going on.”

The east side is anchored underground in a similar fashion, but the anchor houses are longer than their counterparts on the opposite bank. Sparks said he believes they were expanded in 1914 as part of renovations, but he was not able to find evidence of it.

“What we believe is that they were expanded horizontally. We’re not entirely sure why they did that,” Sparks said. “They’re also farther from the river. They don’t have as big a risk as the smaller anchor houses on the other side.”

Sparks said the bridge’s towers have taken little damage over time, but the anchor houses were built with brick containing a fair amount of sand, and have degraded. The design includes plans for selective replacement of bricks, repointing and repairs to the plaster inside the anchor houses to help protect the structures from moisture.

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to speak as MCC Distinguished Lecturer
 Carl Hoover  / 

Basketball legend and author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will come to McLennan Community College Oct. 15 to speak in The Highlands gym as part of MCC’s Distinguished Lecture Series in an event titled “Finding Your Inner All-Star With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.” The lecture is free and open to the public, but tickets are required for admission.

Abdul-Jabbar, 72, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, played 20 years as center for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers before retiring in 1989 at age 42 as one of the NBA’s dominant players.

He holds the NBA’s all-time leading scorer title with 38,387 points, won six NBA championships and is the NBA’s only six-time Most Valuable Player. He averaged 24.6 points per game and 11.2 rebounds per game for his career.

In 2016, sports network ESPN chose him as the second best player in NBA history behind Michael Jordan. During his college years with the University of California at Los Angeles, Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, won three NCAA national championships.

14 books

Active in his retirement from sports, Abdul-Jabbar has written 14 books, beginning with his 1983 autobiography “Giant Steps” and including “Coach Wooden and Me,” about his friendship with UCLA coach John Wooden; “On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance,” co-written with Raymond Obstfeld; and “Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, World War II’s Forgotten Heroes,” with Anthony Walton.

He has also written a children’s book “Becoming Kareem” and is a contributor to national and international publications, writing on subjects including sports, race and religion.

The New York City native also has performed periodically in film and television over the years and co-wrote the 2011 documentary “On The Shoulders Of Giants” about the all-black professional basketball team the New York Renaissance.

He served as a United States cultural ambassador in 2012 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2016. Abdul-Jabbar also heads his Skyhook Foundation, named after his signature basketball shooting move, which brings educational science, technology, engineering and math opportunities to underserved communities through outdoor environmental learning.


Tickets are free for the event in October but are required for seating purposes. Tickets become available at midnight Aug. 30 at https://kareematmclennan.

Abdul-Jabbar will sign copies of his books after his lecture, with books for sale in The Highlands’ lobby.

editor's pick
City considers public spaces, trash control on Mary Avenue
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

Mary Avenue businesses might be required to disguise their dumpsters as part of a long-held goal of turning the downtown stretch into a destination of its own near the Brazos River.

The city of Waco’s Budget and Audit committee discussed plans Tuesday to develop a streetscape project and a special district to dictate how businesses along Mary Avenue handle their trash.

“The idea was that it was one of the most important connections to the river,” former city planning director Bill Falco said. “It really hasn’t become that, but this is about making it that, and given recent developments, the timing couldn’t be better than today.”

Public Works Director Chuck Dowdell said the solid waste collection district could include requirements to conceal trash cans and dumpsters in structures that do not attract attention, along with a cardboard and glass recycling program for downtown businesses.

“We wanted to integrate the trash into the building itself,” Dowdell said. “So, if it’s a new building, we’d like to have it inside of the building. We’d have to plan for that. It is some space, but it will be out of sight.”

Smaller storefronts that generate less trash would be able to use a separate pick-up program. Dowdell said enclosed, stationary compactors should be added wherever feasible. The waste district would run from Fifth Street to University Parks Drive and Jackson Avenue to Franklin Avenue.

“We want to avoid all of that so people can walk in this area,” Dowdell said.

Both projects are being led by a task force comprised of Falco, Dowdell, Interim Public Works Director Amy Burlarley-Hyland, Economic Development Executive Director Melett Harrison, Planning Services Director Clint Peters and City Center Waco Director Megan Henderson.

Streetscape project

The streetscape project boundaries would straddle Mary Avenue from 12th Street to University Parks Drive, with a “target area” from Third Street to University Parks. Falco said the task force would develop an interim plan for developments that come in before an official streetscape plan is in place.

“We’ll get their input,” Falco said. “We’ve developed some criteria before we have the finished product.”

Traffic engineering manager Eric Gallt presented details on the streetscape project, which would include everything from street furniture and public art to gathering spaces and lighting.

“What we’re trying to do here is not have Mary be merely an access, but a destination, somewhere that when people come to Waco, they have to go to Mary Street,” Gallt said.

Gallt said additional parking is key to that goal, along with making sure infrastructure accommodates bikes, scooters and wheelchairs.

“This isn’t new,” Gallt said. “This isn’t something we’re starting on. It’s a vision we’re continuing to develop.”

The city would eventually enter a contract with CP&Y and Walker Partners to develop streetscape plans and a solid waste strategy.

City Center Waco would work to get stakeholders’ input, preliminary plans would be presented in November, and cost estimates would be presented to the city council in January.

Girl, 4, dies in house fire
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

A 4-year-old girl died at a local hospital Tuesday after firefighters pulled her out of a burning house in South Waco, officials said.

Firefighters and police were called to the 2800 block of Burnett Avenue at 5:09 p.m., with police first arriving at the house, Waco police Sgt. David Conley said. Police could not enter the home because of the heat and smoke, but fire crews arrived less than five minutes after the first call, he said.

“PD were trying to find where the child was in the house and talk to the father, who told them the room that he thought the child was in,” Waco Fire Chief Bobby Tatum said. “Firefighters had information relayed to them, and they knocked down the fire first and started a search.”

The girl was found in a front room, adjacent to the living room where it appears the fire may have started, Tatum said. She was unresponsive when she was taken by ambulance to Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center.

There was at least one working smoke detector in the home, Waco fire Lt. Keith Guillory said.

Family members and neighbors crowded the street as officials worked the fire scene. It is unknown where the father or other adults were at the time the fire started.

Police are investigating the incident as a questionable death, Conley said.

The name of the girl was not available Tuesday night.