McLane Stadium opens
A sold-out crowd of 45,733 packed the $266 million, sparkling McLane Stadium on opening day to watch the Baylor Bears easily rout Southern Methodist University, 45-0.
The stadium’s opening was the culmination of nearly two years of fast-paced construction but an even longer effort of fundraising and planning.
To some, it was a true miracle on the Brazos: “I almost cried when I walked up and saw it was a real stadium,” Baylor alumnus Andy Smith of Austin said on opening day.
The facility opened on time despite a tragic incident on Jan. 28 that claimed the life of a man working on the Umphrey Pedestrian Bridge that connects the stadium to Baylor’s campus.
Jose Dario Suarez, 55, died after the hydraulic lift he and another construction worker were riding in slipped or rolled from a barge into the Brazos River.
Suarez’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in March against the university and several construction and equipment companies. Baylor installed a plaque in memory of Suarez on the bridge.
Ed Graf Jr. retrial
Convicted child killer Edward E. Graf Jr. begins the new year in a halfway house in El Paso after his October retrial and immediate release on parole captured the attention of McLennan County residents and others far beyond.
The former Waco banker, who embezzled $75,000 from the bank’s customers, pleaded guilty Oct. 21 to two counts of murder for burning alive his two adopted stepsons in a 1986 shed fire behind his Hewitt home.
He was sentenced to 60 years in prison in a plea bargain struck with prosecutors just before a 54th State District Court jury reached a guilty verdict after 11 hours of deliberations.
Graf was eligible for mandatory release on parole because of the good-time credits he earned in prison and the 26 years he served in prison and in jail combined to make his release from prison mandatory under the law in effect at the time of the crime.
If prosecutors had left the matter in the jury’s hands and it returned a life sentence, Graf would not have been eligible for release so quickly and his release would not have been mandatory.
Graf will be supervised by parole officials until April 29, 2048.
He could be released from the halfway house later this month to live with his sister in Hays County, officials have said.
Zebra mussels invade Lake Waco
Invasive zebra mussels were discovered at the Ridgewood Country Club boat ramp into Lake Waco in September, threatening the ecological balance of the lake and the city of Waco’s water system.
The dreaded mussels, which multiply quickly, can clog up water intake pipes.
Shortly after their discovery, city crews pulled half-ton PVC tarps into the water around the boat ramp and weighted them down with sandbags in an attempt to smother the invaders in an area the size of a football field. It will take months to know if the plan has worked.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials discovered more than 1,000 zebra mussels on a work barge owned by James Phillips of Belton that was used for making dock repairs at Ridgewood Country Club. Phillips and his workers transported the mussel-covered barge to Lake Waco.
“These individuals knew about zebra mussels,” said Brian Van Zee, the department’s inland fisheries director. “I think there’s some neglect in there.”
Game wardens cited boat operator Rocky Ray Taylor, an employee of Phillips who is also from Belton, for transporting and possessing zebra mussels, which are Class C misdemeanors carrying fines of up to $500 each.
Balcones Whisky dispute
Balcones Distilling Co. founder Charles “Chip” Tate and the Balcones board of managers ended months of bickering and legal wrangling in December by settling their lawsuit.
The board bought out Tate’s 27 percent interest in the popular whisky distillery and removed Tate from the board in the settlement, which included a 15-month noncompete clause for Tate.
The board suspended Tate for 90 days in August and obtained a temporary restraining order to prevent him from entering the award-winning company he founded six years ago.
The board alleged Tate made repeated “inappropriate comments and engaged in harassing behavior,” including threatening to shoot board Chairman Greg Allen. Tate denies the allegations.
The dispute threatened to derail a $15 million expansion of the company, but Balcones officials say plans to move into the historic former Texas Fireproof Storage building at 225 S. 11th St. to expand the business are still on track.
Waco Hippodrome reopens
The Waco Hippodrome marked its 100th year in 2014 by reopening for business Nov. 14 after a two-year, $2.6 million renovation that added food service and a restaurant to the historic downtown Waco theater.
The theater had closed as a performance arts venue in 2010 due to financial problems. Downtown developers Shane and Cody Turner bought the building and reworked it as a first-run movie house — the Hippodrome’s business for much of its history. It’s also available for non-movie entertainment several days a week.
Construction and scheduling delays, however, pushed the theater’s reopening from a hoped-for February 2014 to late spring, then late summer before its official debut on Nov. 14.
The Hippodrome’s first week featured live entertainment, a country music concert, family programming, dance and film. Programming director Melissa Green, who worked on the Hippodrome’s opening for much of six months, resigned shortly after the theater’s gala week, citing she felt she had accomplished what she intended with the theater and needed to move on.
By year’s end, the theater was screening first-run movies such as “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”
Sandy Creek coal plant sues appraisal district
The owners of the Sandy Creek coal-fired power plant in Riesel filed suit in September against the McLennan County Appraisal District to lower the plant’s tax values, putting millions of tax dollars at stake.
The owners claim the district’s valuation of $884.5 million is “excessive and unlawful.”
Earlier in the year, Sandy Creek owners asked the local Appraisal Review Board to lower the appraisal by $631 million, saying that a downturn in the coal industry has devalued the 1-year-old plant. The independent three-member board upheld the original appraisal.
The plant was completed in 2013 at a cost of $1.2 billion, but Sandy Creek officials say it is now worth only $253.5 million, which would reduce the company’s local taxes by about $2.5 million.
MCAD Chief Appraiser Drew Hahn said he believes this is the biggest appraisal challenge in McLennan County history. He said the lawsuit could drag on for a year or more and cost the tax-supported district some $300,000 in legal fees.
Baylor vs. TCU and the College Football Playoff
In the first year of the College Football Playoff, the Big 12 was shut out as Baylor University and Texas Christian University were left on the outside looking in.
In a crazy final weekend, the Bears and Horned Frogs both took care of business to share the Big 12 title with 8-1 records. Baylor ended the regular season with a 38-27 win over Kansas State while the Horned Frogs manhandled last-place Iowa State, 55-3.
But the College Football Playoff selection committee was blown away by Ohio State’s 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. The final four-team playoff for the national title included No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 Ohio State.
Finishing the regular season with 11-1 overall records, Baylor came in fifth and TCU sixth. Baylor coach Art Briles was upset that the Big 12 declared the two teams co-champions after commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in the summer that a tiebreaker would come into play. The Bears won the head-to-head meeting over the Horned Frogs, 61-58, on Oct. 11 at McLane Stadium.
“Don’t say one thing and do another,” Briles said.
Magnolia Homes plans downtown Waco investment
This was the year that the Gaines household of Waco became a household name.
In April, HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” introduced Chip and Joanna Gaines and their Magnolia Homes renovation company to a national cable audience of more than 2 million. Viewers saw the magnetic couple rehabilitate and furnish 12 homes from Waco’s low- and high-income neighborhoods, as well as West and Robinson.
By summer, they were rushing to renovate another 13 Waco-area homes for the second season of the popular show, which will debut Jan. 6.
Now they are working on Season 3, which features an ambitious project in downtown Waco. A $1.4 million renovation will transform the long-vacant Brazos Valley Cottonseed Oil Mill, 601 Webster Ave., into “Magnolia Market,” a shopping mecca for home décor and food trucks.
Construction is now under way after the couple received incentives of $208,376 in November from the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone.
Economic highs and lows
Retail expansion, most notably on the southern end of the city in Central Texas Marketplace between Interstate 35 and Bagby Avenue, boomed in 2014.
The most ambitious addition to the center is taking shape between the Cabela’s outdoors store and Office Depot, where buildings are going up to accommodate seven new or relocating stores, including Cost Plus World Market, Cavender’s Boot City, Designer Shoe Warehouse, Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft, Five Below, Haverty’s and Bed Bath & Beyond.
The shopping center also welcomed Twin Peaks restaurant, Ulta beauty supply and GapKids in 2014. And construction began on a retail strip between David’s Bridal and Starbucks. Aspen Dental and Mattress Pro have committed to that location.
On the other side of the center’s property, land clearing continues for 32 senior-living cottages, a 64-bed assisted living center and a skilled nursing complex that will take shape in multiple stages.
Down I-35, a 52,000-square-foot Gander Mountain outdoors store opened in October at South Valley Mills Drive and Bagby Avenue.
While downtown Waco saw its share of wins with renovated spaces, new eateries and nightlife options, the city’s core took a huge blow when officials in September suspended negotiations with Brazos River Development Ltd. that had aimed to develop a section of prime riverfront nearest to McLane Stadium.
Partners Rick Sheldon and Joe Beard, of Waco, proposed to build a combination of shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, housing, a pier and farmers market on a site that encompasses 22 acres. But the estimated cost of the public-private project soared from $180 million to $300 million.
The city intends to put out a new request for proposals in January for the land.
DA’s office upheaval
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna had a rocky 2014 in terms of staff stability as eight prosecutors, including Reyna’s top prosecutor, and an administrative assistant left the office.
Among them was Greg Davis, a seasoned trial attorney with more than 30 years’ experience who served as lead prosecutor in the three death penalty verdicts Reyna’s office has won in the past two years.
“It’s fair to say that I chose to resign for two reasons. First, I lost all confidence in Abel Reyna’s leadership,” Davis said. “And secondly, I wanted no part of a two-tiered justice system in which a favored few received special, preferential treatment. It’s wrong and contrary to the basic belief that I’ve always held as a prosecutor that a person’s connections and status in the community should not determine how they’re treated in the criminal justice system.”
Others who left Reyna’s office include Joe Layman, Reyna’s former misdemeanor chief who is now an assistant city attorney in Waco; and J.R. Vicha, one of Reyna’s felony trial court chiefs, who went into private practice.
Reyna has declined to discuss the turnover in his office.