The old Cotton Belt railroad bridge over the Brazos River near downtown could attract bicycle riders, diners, nature lovers and others wanting an up-close look at a part of Waco’s past.

About 40 people attended a public meeting Tuesday night to offer their views on how the iron truss bridge that now belongs to the nonprofit City Center Waco could best meet its potential and complement the continued development along the riverfront.

Ideas floated during the 90-minute session hosted by City Center Waco executive director Megan Henderson included making the old bridge a gathering place that might feature dining establishments, benches, covered sitting areas and attractive lighting.

One person suggested it might serve as the catalyst for creation of a train service that would roll around the central city, though another attendee described that idea as “far-fetched.”

Several observed that the bridge needs only tweaking and should accommodate residents and visitors wanting to run, walk or simply relax while watching the river roll and enjoying the sites of downtown.

At minimum, Henderson expects the bridge would be renovated to be safe for pedestrian crossings and tie in with ramps to the new $5.7 million riverwalk section the city of Waco is building on the east side of the river. When the segment is finished, a lighted hike-and-bike trail will run from Brazos Park East to McLane Stadium.

Trent Dougherty, a philosophy professor at Baylor University and president of the Waco Bicycle Club, said putting the historic bridge to use “establishes Waco as belonging to the culture of preservation as opposed to the throwaway culture.”

Dougherty said bikers would appreciate the creation of a designated lane for their use as part of the bridge modification.

Mitch DeLaRosa, 56, kicked off public comment suggesting that the bridge would hold little appeal as merely a place to cross the river “in 105-degree heat.” DeLaRosa suggested it needs an attraction that might include a restaurant.

Ryan Helm, 31, who owns and operates Waco River Safari, said the bridge could serve as the site of a floating dock to accommodate the growing number of watercraft using the river.

Connection to past

The development should reflect the bridge’s history in its new design, said Ron Miller, 70, a Lorena resident who serves as chairman of the Texas Train Festival in Temple.

“Don’t forget. This is a railroad bridge, and I think it could serve as a connection to Waco’s past,” Miller said. “I think development should include a railroad theme.”

The bridge also could serve area businesses well.

“What sounds really lovely to me is walking or riding a bike along the river and across the bridge while eating ice cream,” said Julia Meek, who operates the Pokey O’s ice cream truck downtown.

Henderson said a committee assigned the task of planning the bridge’s development is scheduled to make a decision on the concept within three months. A 12-month period for fundraising will follow, and then a detailed design will take shape.

Henderson asked people at the public meeting to write down their suggestions on a piece of paper so they could be posted to Center City Waco’s Facebook page.

The Wallace Group has prepared three concepts for the bridge’s transformation, and drawings were on display Tuesday.

City Center Waco received the bridge last year as a donation from developer Rick Sheldon and his wife, Lisa. The bridge was built in 1907 but had been abandoned for decades when the Sheldons bought it in 2016.

A vision Sheldon depicted through an animated video would make the bridge more than a pedestrian connection. The video, prepared by the Wallace Group, shows a festival walkway along Mary Avenue that crosses University Parks Drive and extends to the bridge.

The bridge itself would be widened and furnished with benches, dramatic lighting, landscaping and concession stands.

Henderson has said that vision would cost an estimated $7 million, which would probably require significant fundraising or private partnerships in addition to public money.

Near the bridge, businessmen Todd Behringer and Shane Turner are creating a $9 million retail center at May Avenue and University Parks Drive, while other investors are about to open the Mary Avenue Market, an 11,000-square-foot food and retail center, at Sixth Street.

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