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Setting new pace
Waco retailers, restaurants take cautious approach to reopening

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott may have to clear his throat and announce yet again that as of Friday, the state’s retailers and restaurants can open for business.

Apparently many in Waco did not get the message.

Or maybe customers are biding their time, waiting for a neighbor, friend or colleague to say it is OK to enter, but please remember social distancing.

Two more COVID-19 cases were reported Friday in McLennan County, bringing the total to 91 cases, including 13 considered still active. Four people have died and 74 have recovered, according to the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District.

Though Friday’s retail start was slow, popular stores emerged here and there. Academy Sports & Outdoors, Hobby Lobby and Kirkland’s were enjoying robust interest. At Academy, a family of four — two adults and two preschoolers — created a heartwarming image as they strolled toward the main entrance, each wearing a colorful mask.

Shoe Dept. at Richland Mall enjoyed traffic galore at 1 p.m.

It had even more when it opened two hours earlier.

“People were right here ready to shop,” district manager Sarah Moore said as she staffed a register. “They were sitting in their cars right outside, and as soon as the front door clicked, they headed this way.”

She estimated 15 to 20 people comprised the ad hoc reception committee.

Observers have suggested the overhead costs associated with opening a retail store may lead many to delay reopening until they are allowed to move to a 50% occupancy rate. Abbott’s orders now limit occupancy to 25% and are scheduled to move to a 50% occupancy limit May 18 if COVID-19 infection rates do not spike in the meantime.

Elsewhere in Richland Mall, pickings were slim. Not a peep from Chick-fil-A, which was closed tight. The food court stood silent, its tables and chairs not to be seen. Dillard’s, JCPenney, Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, Hallmark, Earthbound Trading Co., Zales and Kay Jeweler all remained shuttered.

Laughter from a small child echoed through the emptiness, and rubber-necking mall walkers appeared unsure of their surroundings.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a whole new world.

At Hibbett Sports, a sense of normalcy could be found.

“Actually, we’ve been busy,” said head coach Gregory Roden, as identified by the tag on his Hibbett apparel.

He was wearing a light blue mask but otherwise expressed little concern about serving customers.

“With the precautions here in the store and what the mall has done, we’ll be all right,” Roden said as he busily rang up sales of shoes and shirts.

Kantress Carter visited Hibbett during her lunch hour.

“I admit I had second-thoughts, which is why I wore this,” Carter said as she flipped up her mask and smiled.

She expected the mall, and Hibbett, to be populated primarily by a younger crowd less concerned about COVID-19.

“And that’s what they have,” she said.

Stacey Keating, spokesperson for Richland Mall owner CBL Properties, said by email that Dick’s Sporting Goods was the only mall anchor open Friday.

Dillard’s, JCPenney and Gordmans apparently took a wait-and-see approach. But Dillard’s was not without a presence. A crew continues to create a grand outside entrance to the former Sears space that Dillard’s bought and will fill with its women’s and housewares department.

Lunar Golf opened Friday in Richland mall, as did a handful of smaller shops, including DSTRKT10, Dippin’ Dots, Italia Express, Modern Man, The Silver Sparrow Boutique, Perfume Time and El Primo Western Wear.

All 4 U welcomed guests while enforcing a 10-person limit on occupancy and highly recommending the wearing of masks and gloves.

Tammy Wake at Timeless Engraving said the sparse crowd at early afternoon met her expectations. With Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and possibly graduation events on the horizon, she remains optimistic.

Pockets of activity at Central Texas Marketplace were few and far between.

Kohl’s attracted the steadiest procession of traffic, and it was not open to foot traffic. Vehicles were lining up curbside to collect online orders.

“We’ll open in a week or two,” an employee said.

Ninfa’s Mexican Restaurant downtown was open regular hours Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., but nothing was regular about its preparation.

“We took out the majority of our tables, and those still here are a minimum of 6 feet apart,” general manager Darlene Schoenrock said. “The booths we can’t move. We’re placing guests in every other one to create the spacing we need. We have many sanitizing stations throughout the restaurant. We’re taking employees’ temperatures when they get here, and we’re taking wellness surveys. Of course, we’re wearing masks.”

She said Ninfa’s also hired someone whose sole duty is to patrol the restaurant, sanitizer in hand. The bathrooms are sanitized after each use.

Otherwise, Ninfa’s joined most restaurants in reducing its staff size.

“We’re really pleased with today,” Schoenrock said. “Many, many people showed up excited about getting out and enjoying a meal.”

Kyle Citrano, president of the Waco Restaurant Association and managing partner of George’s Bar & Catering on Hewitt Drive, said local restaurants undoubtedly will adopt policies that best suit their clientele.

He planned to open at 7 a.m. Friday to serve breakfast.

The Cabela’s outdoors store at Central Texas Marketplace displayed a notice that the customer count at any given time would not exceed 200.

That was a move dictated by COVID-19 precautions.

At early afternoon Friday, that target was high by about 180 people.

James Hopkins, of Waco, was browsing for bass baits.

“I just came to shop, and I’m glad it’s open,” Hopkins said.

He was giving consideration to wetting a line at Lake Waco later in the day.

Photo gallery: Today’s top pics — coronavirus outbreak and more

Today’s top pics: Coronavirus Outbreak and more

Tribune-Herald captures 23 awards in APME contest

The Waco Tribune-Herald captured 23 awards in the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors contests, which highlight work from last year.

Tommy Witherspoon, Carl Hoover and Win Emmons each won first-place awards, and Brice Cherry was named the Celeste Williams Star Sportswriter of the Year. The winners were released last week after the annual Texas APME convention was canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. The Tribune-Herald competes in Division AAA.

The Star award was Cherry’s second, having won Sportswriter of the Year in 2017. He has been with the newspaper since 1998.

“We had 11 different winners this year, which is a credit to the depth and experience of our staff,” Tribune-Herald Editor Steve Boggs said. “They turn out great work every day, and it’s very gratifying to see them recognized for it.”

Witherspoon, who captured three awards overall, won both first place and honorable mention in the Deadline Writing category. His first-place entry was a story announcing that District Attorney Barry Johnson had dropped all remaining criminal charges in the 2015 Twin Peaks biker shooting. His other award-winning piece was for a not guilty verdict in the Shawn Oakman sexual assault trial in the spring of 2019.

Entertainment editor Hoover won first and second place in Comment and Criticism. His first-place entry included a column about a national lynching memorial, a piece on Waco musician Tonee Calhoun and a look at a Martin Museum of Art exhibit.  His arts-focused blog, Sound & Sight, won second place.

Emmons, the newspaper’s online editor, captured first place for his interactive timeline of the story of the Waco Mammoth National Monument. He also won Honorable Mention in the Star Online Package of the Year contest for his presentation of the Eighth Street pedestrian bridge’s obituary, written by J.B. Smith with striking photos by Jerry Larson.

Reporter Brooke Crum won second place in Community Service for her reporting on Marlin ISD’s continuing troubles.

Bill Whitaker won third place in the Star Opinion Writer of the Year contest, while reporter Kristin Hoppa took third in the Star Breaking News Report of the Year category for her coverage of a noon bank robbery in Hewitt. Hoppa also won third place in Short Features for her report on Church Under the Bridge’s march from its home under the Fourth Street underpass on Interstate 35 to its home away from home at Magnolia Market at the Silos.

Tribune-Herald photographers won three awards, including second place finishes in News Photography and Feature Photography by Jerry Larson, and an Honorable Mention by Rod Aydelotte in Sports Photography.

The Dallas Morning News (AAAA), Beaumont Enterprise (AAA), Brownsville Herald (AA) and Baytown Sun (A) were named Newspaper of the Year in their respective divisions.

Here is the complete list of winners from the Tribune-Herald in the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and Headliners Awards contests:

1st — Celeste Williams Star Sportswriter of the Year, Brice Cherry

1st — Deadline writing, Tommy Witherspoon, Twin Peaks

1st — Comment and Criticism, Carl Hoover

1st — Infographics, Win Emmons, Waco Mammoth National Monument timeline

2nd — Community Service, Brooke Crum, Marlin ISD struggles

2nd — Comment and Criticism, Carl Hoover, Sight and Sound blog

2nd — Sports features, Brice Cherry, Wendzel making waves

2nd — Sports columns, Brice Cherry

2nd — News photography, Jerry Larson, Coble executed

2nd — Feature photography, Jerry Larson, Friday night cameras

3rd — Star Breaking News Report of the Year, Kristin Hoppa, Noon bank robbery

3rd — Star Opinion Writer of the Year, Bill Whitaker

3rd — Short features, Kristin Hoppa, Church Under the Bridge marches to new home

HM — Deadline writing, Tommy Witherspoon, Oakman not guilty

HM — Freedom of Information, Kristin Hoppa, FBI standoff

HM — Feature writing, Tommy Witherspoon, Shoeshine man

HM — Feature writing, Mike Copeland, Sears leaves Waco

HM — Sports features, Brice Cherry, Worth his weight in gold

HM — Sports features, John Werner, Lumley returns

HM — Sports features, John Werner, John Muir trail

HM — Sports features, Brice Cherry and John Werner, Baylor winning the right way

HM — Sports photography, Rod Aydelotte, Flipping for five titles

HM — Star Online Package of the Year, In Memoriam: Eighth Street Pedestrian Bridge

Waco police: Arrests mark progress in stopping wave of shootings

Police have made a series of arrests in the last two weeks related to a rash of recent shootings in Waco, and investigators believe most of the violence involved rival groups targeting each other.

Waco police say about 10 arrests have been made in the shooting incidents that have occurred over the last two months.

Police have declined to name the rival groups as investigators continue to question arrested suspects about their affiliations.

The majority of shootings have involved suspects under the age of 21, and weapons recovered have generally been found to be stolen, Waco police Officer Garen Bynum said.

Only one injury has been reported in the recent series of shootings, but property damage has been common, Bynum said. The one shooting that resulted in an injury remains under investigation.

“Obviously, any time we have those types of calls it is an immediate danger to the public and thus far, the people that are involved are getting to a point where they are getting really careless about who they are shooting at and how they are shooting at them,” Bynum said. “It is becoming more and more public, and it really has becoming a safety issue.”

Detectives, patrol officers, traffic investigators and street crimes officers have continued to investigate shootings that have plagued the city since March. Those arrested have been questioned in their affiliation to different groups around the city as the investigations remain ongoing.

Bynum said the majority of the calls of shots being fired in local neighborhoods have involved suspects who are under the age of 21 and are unlawfully carrying firearms. In most of the calls, the weapons have been found to be stolen from homes, cars and other property in and outside of the city of Waco.

“We have multiple units out that are trying to make them stop and trying to get individuals put in jail to try to make it stop,” Bynum said. “We are trying to do the best we can to protect our community and definitely hoping this will make an impact on those types of offenses.”

Last month, police arrested a 19-year-old man accused of firing a weapon near North 20th Street and Mitchell Avenue. The call led to a brief police chase in which the driver crashed the car. The driver and a passenger ran from the wrecked car, leaving the 19-year-old man trapped inside. The teenager was arrested on a deadly conduct charge and was taken to McLennan County Jail. He later posted bond and was released from jail.

Waco Police Chief Ryan Holt said last year at least 75 gangs are currently operating in the Waco-area. Gangs, or local cliques, have been linked to car burglaries, theft and the drug trade.

In November, the city of Waco received a $1.5 million Texas Anti-Gang grant to create the hub, where 10 to 15 Waco detectives who already participate in anti-gang work will coordinate with state and federal authorities tackling the issue from a regional perspective. The unit remains in development.

California company moving headquarters to Waco to take 1 of 2 industrial sites up for annexation

The city of Waco is poised to annex two Texas Central Park industrial sites that will be developed soon. One will be home to a manufacturer of plastic clothes hangers, and the other potential user has not yet publicly announced its plans or identity.

The Waco Plan Commission voted to recommend annexation of the sites, which are being sold by the Waco Industrial Foundation.

“We’ve had a longstanding agreement with Waco Industrial Foundation,” city Planning Director Clint Peters said. “Their properties aren’t annexed into the city until they get ready to sell and develop them.”

On the first 65-acre site, Merrick Engineering, now based in California, plans to open a manufacturing facility for plastic clothes hangers and a new corporate headquarters at 7201 Mars Drive. The city and McLennan County reached a deal with Merrick late last year to provide a $950,000 grant and $1.1 million in tax breaks if it follows through with plans to spend $33 million on its new 400,000-square-foot facility and meets associated hiring and other targets in the coming years. Merrick has existing local operations that it plans to relocate into the new facility.

The other site the Plan Commission recommended for annexation includes 93 acres near Highway 6 and Bagby Avenue, with Exchange Parkway to the south and Ford, Honda and Hyundai auto dealerships to the north along the highway.

The Waco Industrial Foundation’s property is generally in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, meaning the city has certain authority over the area but property owners are not subject to city taxes. The Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce manages the foundation, which was formed in 1952 and is led by a 24-member volunteer board, according to the chamber website.

Peters said the city does not know what company plans to buy the property from the foundation, or what the site would be used for, other than “industrial development.” The foundation is still listed as the property’s owner on the McLennan County Appraisal District’s website.

“Both of (the properties) are surrounding by the city of Waco,” Peters said. “It represents these little doughnut holes where Waco Industrial Foundation owns the land in these areas.”

Peters said most of the city’s industrial district was owned by the Waco Industrial Foundation at one time.

“You go back to the ‘70s, there’s probably been, I would say 50 separate annexations for property when it gets developed,” Peters said.

The Legends Crossing mixed-use development near Interstate 35 and Highway 6, and the Caterpillar distribution facility and the Walmart Return Center off of Bagby went through the same process.

“We haven’t had any in a while,” Peters said. “Probably the Caterpillar site was the most recent one, six to eight years ago.”

Peters said it is not unusual for industrial projects to get to their advanced stages before a company, or the Waco Industrial Foundation, makes a public announcement.

“They did not make that information available to us yet, besides that it’s going to be an industrial development,” Peters said of the foundation. “Typically they don’t start the annexation process until they know for sure that it’s going to be developed.”

Peters said the days of involuntary annexation are largely over in Texas.

“We don’t do a lot of annexations,” Peters said. “We used to do a lot of involuntary annexations, where the city would annex land without getting permission from landowners. But the way the state law has changed over the years, you can’t annex without an election process.”