Cheese House

Texas Cheese House owner Scott Simon, seen here in 2016 holding a hunk of Romano among other house-made cheeses, has announced plans to close the shop at the end of the year.

Christmas is two days away, and though its true meaning transcends economics, one might find it difficult to imagine better conditions leading into the holiday season. Locally, most sectors are firing on almost all cylinders, with unemployment, spending, economic development, tourism, home construction and home sales among the brightest spots.

Here are a few nuggets to ponder while awaiting the big day:

Unemployment

The jobless rate in the Waco Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Falls and McLennan counties, stayed pegged at 3.2 percent in November, the same as October and down from 3.5 percent from November 2017. What makes that rate so impressive is that it continues to fall, or remain steady, as the labor pool expands with new arrivals seeking work, a factor Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce Vice President for Economic Development Kris Collins has repeatedly highlighted.

The Texas Workforce Commission and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the local economy created about 2,000 new jobs the past year.

Job growth and buying power go hand-in-hand, which should prove delightful to local retailers during this make-or-break time of year.

Sales tax

Speaking of buying power, local merchants saw a buying binge in October. Whether it was a powerful full moon, Halloween sales, Silobration or Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo-related outlaying, who can say. But Waco got a $3.3 million sales tax rebate from the Texas Comptroller’s Office in December, which reflects sales in October. That was 18 percent more than the $2.8 million rebate Waco got in December last year.

Retailers stocking their shelves for the holidays had to be salivating.

And it was not as if Waco siphoned proceeds from the suburbs. Woodway enjoyed a 27 percent increase, while Bellmead and Beverly Hills saw 12.4 and 8.7 percent increases, respectively. Robinson jumped 7.9 percent, Lacy Lakeview, 6.2 percent, and Hewitt, 3.7 percent.

In all, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar sent rebates totaling $761 million to cities, counties and special taxing districts around the state, which reflects a 9.5 percent increase from the same month last year.

Gas prices

Gas prices continue to fall, leaving a jingle in the pockets of consumers finishing their Christmas shopping. On Friday, the local average for a gallon of regular unleaded stood at $1.95, according to GasBuddy.com. That is down a nickel from a week ago, 26 cents from a month ago and 14 cents from the same time last year. And drivers know lower prices abound around town, particularly in South Waco, where Murphy USA, H-E-B, Flying J, Pilot, Walmart and Valero locations had prices hovering at about $1.84 a gallon.

Sam’s Club on East Waco Drive was charging cardholders $1.78 a gallon.

81 months of growth

The Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce reported that the city had enjoyed 81 straight months of economic growth through October. It has attracted more than 2.6 million visitors this year. Since 2009, $1.4 billion in private development has been announced in enterprise zones citywide.

Even the New York Times has noticed. It profiled the city Dec. 10 in an article titled ”Waco, Reborn.” It gave much credit to Chip and Joanna Gaines and the “Fixer Upper” phenomenon and generally treated the community with respect, though the first paragraph labels pre-boom Waco as a “flat, dusty stretch,” most notably identified with Baylor University, the 51-day Branch Davidian standoff and its proximity to Dallas and Austin on Interstate 35.

Cheese House closing

Several staffers here at the Tribune-Herald are lamenting the loss of Texas Cheese House in downtown Lorena. Proprietor Scott Simon wrote in a Facebook post he will cease operating out of his brick-and-mortar location Jan. 1. But he urges fans to check back for future developments.

Simon operated the establishment 11 years in Lorena’s historic district and developed a devoted following with his artisan cheeses, candies and breads.

Those who know the place say it is irreplaceable.

Revamped Bella Luna

Bella Luna Italian Bistro opened to nice crowds and glowing reviews, hit a rough patch and now has new owners, a new manager and a fresh staff.

Located in a former Chili’s building at Bosque Boulevard and South Valley Mills Drive, in the Parkdale shopping center, Bella Luna serves pizza, pasta dishes and salads, all made fresh, new manager Keith Schroeder said. He is a 38-year-old Midway High School graduate who has managed restaurants in Dallas, and the new owners are from Austin, Schroeder said.

“The food is awesome, and is going to get better,” he said.

The menu will remain the same for now, but he hopes to add soups and lunch specials early next year, Schroeder said.

Bella Luna has adopted a BYOB policy and will open for lunch and dinner six days a week, closing on Mondays, he said.

Brake & Clutch Supply building

A lot of hubbub has swirled around the old Brake & Clutch Supply building at 407 S. Eighth St. At 6,000 square feet, and with a “Beware of Dog” sign on the fence, it operates as a garage, where owners and brothers Ritchie and Jason Robins repair, you guessed it, brakes and clutches. Ritchie Robins said at least 70 percent of their business is agriculture-related.

The building has seen better days, but its location is prime, just across the street from a gravel parking lot that serves Magnolia Market at the Silos.

The Robins brothers are scheduled to close on a sale of the building Jan. 7 and will use the proceeds to buy an 8,000-square-foot structure at 15156 S. Interstate 35, between Bruceville and Lorena. Their new building, which they plan to close a deal on the same day they sell the downtown location, was most recently vacated by MDS Engine Service, Ritchie Robins said.

“From now until New Year’s Day, we will be semi-open in our current location,” he said.

Commenting on the sales price, he said, “Considering other deals being made down here, I’m sure we are small potatoes, but we are getting a lot more than the property is actually worth, and getting enough to buy a building, move our equipment and set up shop without owing anybody anything. Our deal to buy closes on the same day we sell.”

Brake & Clutch Supply in Waco dates to 1936 and has operated at its current address since 1962. Ritchie Robins said he is passing along his new address to customers as he sees them, and hopes others take the time to find him. Quite a few long-timers do not know his address or phone number.

“They know how to get where they’ve been going all these years,” he said.

He said he has heard bits and pieces about the buyer’s plans.

“I’ve heard a barber shop mentioned and a cigar bar,” he said. “It is my understanding they will have five or six spaces.”

He also said Jimmy Don Holmes, a maker of decorative metal pieces who gained attention with appearances on “Fixer Upper,” will occupy one of the spots.

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