WEST — The West fertilizer plant explosion had appeared in the rearview mirror for six months when construction began on a combination meat market, bakery and country store called Slovacek’s at Melodie Drive and Interstate 35 in the Czech community known for hospitality and kolaches.
Slovacek’s has performed “better than we ever expected” over the past five years, said Ray Rabroker, general manager. It’s been expanded and has drawn 60 percent of its customers from outside Central Texas, selling $18,000 worth of bakery goodies on a good day.
“We’re busy all day,” he added.
Slovacek’s and its meteoric growth is the outlier in West’s economic story since the explosion on April 17, 2013 leveled large sections of town.
The overall economic recovery has been slow but steady and in the right direction, with a new dress shop here, a mom-and-pop dining establishment there. Sales tax rebates from the State Comptroller’s Office totaled $514,504 in 2013, when the community changed forever. Rebates have ascended modestly, reaching $555,983 last year.
“Sales tax revenues have increased, though not by a huge amount. We’re not talking about a Super Walmart opening,” said West Mayor Tommy Muska, speaking by phone. “I’m proud we’re not going backwards. During the first 18 months after the explosion, we had all the emergency personnel here buying food and sandwiches. That has leveled off. But visit downtown on Friday or Saturday, and there is not a parking place to be found. Multiple restaurants, a nail salon and a couple of dress shops are having an impact.”
He added, “People still like kolaches and need gas.”
Lisa Muska, owner of a consignment boutique called Olde Czech Corner Antiques, said I-35 accounts for 90 percent of her walk-in traffic. That rate has not changed in years, though raw numbers have.
“Little towns like West can fall by the wayside if they are put out of commission for a couple of years. If anything, we have gotten stronger,” said Muska, wife of the mayor. “Magnolia Market in Waco, completion of the I-35 widening, the arrival of Slovacek’s. They all have contributed.”
Barbara Schissler, co-owner of Czech Stop, a renowned convenience store and bakery on the Interstate 35 frontage road near West’s main street, said the disastrous explosion and its aftermath did not help or hamper trade.
“It brought a lot of people into town, volunteers, but that did not necessarily mean additional revenues for us,” she said. “We donated day-old kolaches, water and coffee. Our registers are always busy. That has not changed. The biggest change I’ve noticed, and I’ve heard the same from business owners all over the state, is that it has become very tough to find people to work.”
Justice of the Peace David Pareya, who also serves as president of the West Chamber of Commerce, said community leaders realize they must take their game up a notch to attract new business and residential development.
Pareya said West enacted stiffer construction regulations after the explosion, when crews descended on the community to repair or replace structures leveled by the blast. In hindsight, said Pareya, these fresh guidelines proved onerous. “If you wanted to build a doghouse, you had to get a permit,” Pareya said, adding several contractors chafed under the restrictions.
“Some were saying, ‘We can go to the city of Waco and build cheaper,’ ” said Pareya. “Finally, after a few years, we realized we had to do something. All these fees and the size of them were killing the process.”
So far, he said, West has scrapped a formula that ties permit fees to the cost of a building, replacing it with a “$50 across-the-board permitting fee.”
The city also has created an economic development commission to pursue prospects, earmarking a percentage of sales tax revenue to provide incentives. It hopes to raise at least $80,000 annually, Muska said.
“The Sonic Drive-in here is proof that chains can work, and the possibilities for something major here are wonderful,” he said. “People in West will support any business in the community. We have a lot of mom-and-pop operations. Owners leave businesses to their children and to their grandchildren. We are still very possessive of who we are and what we are. But we have to realize we may need a ‘big box’ store, hopefully out there on the interstate, where there is some prime property available, especially near Slovacek’s.”
Muska said “grapevine talk,” which he has heard but not confirmed, indicates several fast-food chains are seriously considering the West market, as is a national “coffee shop chain,” and supporters of a microbrewery.
“We want to make the environment as conducive as possible for developers and builders,” Muska said. “When the school district moves the old football field, space for about 30 homes will become available.”
Settlement of a lawsuit related to the plant explosion will generate about $8 million, and Muska said West will spend a sizable chunk on infrastructure improvements that could prove attractive to developers.
“Some of our pipes are 80 years old, and need to be redone,” he said. “We also hope to place about $1 million in a rainy-day fund to guarantee financial freedom. That’s the council’s choice to make. I just try to lead and guide, and they are a pretty conservative bunch. I also agree that we need to relax city codes, reduce our fees, and make developers feel welcome.”
He added, “The events of 2013 are behind us. They did not define us as a city or as a community. The business community is upbeat, positive. The banks are prosperous. What notoriety we did get did not hurt us.”