When Waco Downtown Development Corp. officials approached Megan Henderson about becoming their first executive director, she had as many questions as they did.
As someone who had toiled 12 years to revive struggling small towns, she wasn’t interested in a comfortable job dressing up downtown. She wanted a challenge.
“The thing I really wanted to hear is whether the board was really serious about doing something transformative, something that will matter and serve all the people,” said Henderson, a veteran of small-town government who has served five years as regional services director for the Heart of Texas Council of Governments.
“I asked them, is this going to be about making tall things taller, shiny things shinier, big things bigger? Or is it really about putting resources in the hands of everybody? When I asked that question of board members, everybody gave me an unhesitating yes.”
Then she got so interested, she began worrying what she’d do if she didn’t get the job.
Henderson started this week part time and will move into the full-time position next month as the public face and sole employee of the new DDC.
The DDC is an independent agency formed last year to implement the city’s Imagine Waco Plan for Greater Downtown, with the help of a $200,000 annual contract with the city.
“Greater Downtown” stretches from East Waco to North 18th Street, and from Baylor to Cameron Park. The plan calls for re-establishing that area as the social, residential and business hub of Waco, with great public spaces, dense development and pedestrian-friendly streets.
Henderson’s job will involve working with developers and government leaders, but her first priority is building relationships with those who live in Greater Downtown. She wants their input not only for the central business district but for Elm Avenue, the North 15th Street corridor and other potential development areas.
“Everything about this is neighborhood-driven,” Henderson said. “Developers need to know they’re going into an area that’s going to embrace what they’re doing.”
DDC president and Baylor University vice president Reagan Ramsower said Henderson’s role is not primarily to recruit businesses to downtown, a role the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce already plays. Rather, it’s to bring business, institutions and neighborhoods together and build consensus for what programs and projects are needed.
Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr., incoming president of the DDC, said Henderson’s community outreach skills made her stand out in a strong field of candidates.
“She has the ability to work with a lot different stakeholders,” Duncan said.
Gale Edwards, a DDC board member and an official with the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce, said Henderson has already begun building relationships with minority communities.
‘She’s a go-getter’
“She’s a go-getter,” Edwards said. “What the minority community is looking for is something tangible that will be accomplished. I think she’ll be the person to say, ‘If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.’ ”
Part of Henderson’s job will be identifying “catalyst projects” that will spur development in parts of Greater Downtown. But she said real success is not creating big prestige projects but encouraging hundreds of small-scale efforts that will bring downtown’s vibrancy back, such as the new Lula Jane’s bakery on Elm Avenue.
Henderson said she wants the community to move beyond finger-pointing and resignation about the decline of the inner city and start looking at its potential.
“Part of the temptation is to talk about why downtowns are emptier than they were, but the fact is, that has happened everywhere,” she said. “What we have today is a lot of space, a lot of opportunity. The No. 1 thing that’s needed is the local political and social will to make it happen.”
Henderson, 36, started her public service career as the head of the state-funded Main Street program in Marlin, where she served from 2000 to 2004. The program had gone through six directors in six years.
Henderson was able to expand the program’s volunteer base from 11 to 75, and to help business people bring downtown buildings back to life. She put on a blues festival honoring Marlin native son Blind Willie Johnson.
“I just loved it,” she said. “I loved Marlin and I still love Marlin. The people were amazing.”
Working with racially diverse segments of Marlin, she learned the practice of what she calls “aggressive listening.”
“Once you’ve talked to people enough times, they stop being nice and start telling you the truth,” she said.
She served as city manager of Rosebud in Falls County from 2004 to 2008 while completing her master’s in public administration. There she oversaw a project to demolish a dilapidated hospital building and replace it with new housing.
At the Heart of Texas Council of Governments, she has overseen programs for a six-county region, including a new reverse-9-1-1 emergency notification system, an air quality initiative and the Efficient Towns and Counties program, which she began this year with a $1 million federal grant. That program helps small towns get a handle on their infrastructure programs through digital mapping.
She will continue on a part-time contract to oversee that program even as she works full time for the DDC.
Place of memories
Henderson said Waco has been part of her life since she was a child growing up in Hillsboro. Back then, it was where the family would travel to shop for shoes and go out for ice cream.
“But I have no childhood memories of downtown, because there was nothing to see here,” she said Wednesday morning, sitting in the Legacy Cafe and Art Gallery on Austin Avenue. As she spoke, power saws whined across the street for another building renovation.
“My children, when they grow up, are going to have memories of downtown being wonderful,” she said.
She described a recent Saturday morning, when she took her two young children to the thriving Waco Downtown Farmers Market, had breakfast and walked down the riverwalk to the Waco Cultural Arts Fest, where her kids got to make their own artistic treasures.
“There’s no traffic, no $20 parking, no fee for anything,” she said. “And we have almost as much to do as we can fit into a day.”
She said downtown’s popularity will snowball as more people discover such experiences and as more people invest in downtown. But that will take time, she said.
“The trees that grow too fast aren’t as strong,” she said. “There’s a richer, truer, deeper result when you work from the bottom up.”