The past year in Central Texas had its share of highs and lows, joy and sorrow, all followed closely by the community and the Tribune-Herald .
Here are the biggest stories of 2012, as selected by Trib editors.
Waco’s biggest construction project in decades began on the banks of the Brazos River: the new $250 million Baylor Stadium, due to open in fall 2014. Local governments pledged $35 million in funds from the downtown Tax Increment Finance Zone to aid the project, which includes public walkways, boat launches and a pedestrian bridge across the river. Local officials said the project would help change the image of Waco.
Jurors deliberated about 3 1/2 hours Nov. 7 before returning a death sentence for Rickey Cummings in the March 2011 slayings of two men at a Waco apartment complex. The shootings took the lives of Tyus Sneed, 17, and Keenan Hubert, 20. Hubert and Sneed each were shot eight times. The car they were in had at least 20 bullet holes in it. Cummings’ trial was the first capital murder trial in which McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna — who took office Jan. 1, 2011, promising to crack down on violent crime — sought the death penalty.
Longtime McLennan County Tax Assessor-Collector Buddy Skeen, 70, pleaded guilty in September to five felony counts involving abuse of county resources. A Texas Ranger investigation found Skeen misused county vehicles and cost the county money through schemes to trade in and sell vehicles that benefited him and his friends.
He repeatedly denied wrongdoing before pleading guilty and resigning from office. Skeen was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and ordered to spend 180 days in state jail. He publicly apologized in court but later said the judge coerced the apology.
Have you ever had a perfect day? How about 40 of them?
Perfection proved attainable for the Baylor women’s basketball team, led by star post Britney Griner, in 2012. Not only did the Lady Bears claim the second national championship in school history, but Baylor also became the first team, men’s or women’s, to go 40-0 during a season.
That run highlighted a year in which the school set an NCAA record by accumulating the most wins (129) in the four major college sports of football, men’s and women’s basketball, and baseball.
The announcement this fall that the city of Waco would take control of the Humane Society of Central Texas’ animal shelter alarmed animal lovers who feared that the city would favor euthanasia over adoption.
But local animal groups say they now are redoubling their efforts to rescue animals from the shelter and move Waco toward becoming a “no-kill” community. The Humane Society ended its contract to run the city-owned shelter after more than 25 years. Since then, the Humane Society has agreed to stay on to run the facility’s office and market adoptable animals.
After months of discussion and public input, the Waco Independent School District board of trustees voted in February to close nine schools and consolidate students onto remaining campuses. Some of the closures drew ire from parents and community members, including the move of the A.J. Moore Academy high school program onto the University High School campus. Officials said the closures were intended to help the district weather a $3.5 million funding cut from the state. The district estimated that closing schools would mean a cost avoidance of several hundred thousand dollars, per school, each year.
Scott & White Healthcare, a key player in Central Texas’ medical market, announced in mid-December that it plans to merge with Dallas-based Baylor Health Care System.
The deal, scheduled to close sometime in 2013, will create the largest not-for-profit health system in Texas and one of the biggest health systems in the nation. The new entity will be called Baylor Scott & White Health and will boast 34,000 employees at 42 hospitals and 350 patient care sites across 44 Texas counties. Officials with both systems said they think the merger will allow them to transform the nation’s health care landscape by creating a new model of patient-centered care that solves some of the industry’s most vexing problems. Improving quality while decreasing the cost of care is a primary goal.
Downtown Waco gained ground in 2012 with new attractions and some stalled projects getting back on track. The Waco Convention Center was rededicated in late July after a $17.5 million renovation that took nearly a year longer than expected to complete. The once dowdy-looking concrete structure has been revamped with a jazzy new atrium facade, a balcony overlooking the river and glassed-in hallways all the way around.
After several years of delays, the 111-room Hotel Indigo opened at 2011 Clay Ave., and work began on the $17 million Franklin Place residential-retail complex on Franklin Avenue. The Waco Downtown Farmers Market, which started in November 2011, quickly became a Saturday tradition in 2012, routinely drawing more than 1,000 visitors for food, music and artisan goods on the banks of the Brazos. Meanwhile, local entrepreneurs pitched proposals for ziplines and a riverboat along the downtown riverfront. The Waco Hippodrome, mothballed in 2010, attracted a private buyer who plans to turn it into a year-round entertainment anchor for Austin Avenue.
Several high-profile leaders announced their retirements in 2012, including longtime McLennan County Judge Jim Lewis and three-term Sheriff Larry Lynch. Lewis, a 40-year county employee who served as county judge for more than two decades, announced his retirement in August, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. County commissioners appointed retired banker Scott Felton to complete Lewis’ term through 2014. Lynch’s decision not to seek re-election led to a hard-fought Republican primary between his chief deputy, Randy Plemons, and retired deputy U.S. marshal Parnell McNamara. McNamara defeated Plemons in May and went on to win the Nov. 6 general election, keeping the office in Republican hands. The Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce also saw a leadership change when Jim Vaughan retired after eight years as president and was replaced by Matthew T. Meadors, who previously led the Southwest Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
McLennan County commissioners endured a long and contentious budget season that resulted in a last-minute deal in August to cut more than $3 million in spending to help ease a tax rate increase. County leaders based the 2013 budget on projected 2012 spending levels while reserving $4 million for new expenses and unforeseen needs. But a series of problems has required several budget amendments since then, including mistakes that left too little money for salaries and erased a constable’s budget for office supplies and ammunition. Meanwhile, county taxpayers had to absorb a 2-cent, or 4.3 percent, property tax rate increase.