I turned 50 last week, and as a birthday present to myself, I took a ride in a helicopter for the first time. I highly recommend you add it to your bucket list.

The flight wasn’t long, and it included the obligatory flyover of McLane Stadium. From 800 feet, it’s a very cool sight, especially at twilight.

Waco looks quite different from the air at night. From 800 feet up, all the streets look smooth and clutter-free. The river is majestic and meandering. I-35 is a neverending ribbon of lights and the Baylor campus is impressively lit.

And it’s easy to spot familiar landmarks. The lights shine brightest along busy Valley Mills Drive and downtown. But from the air, most of Waco is really dark. Virtually every residential area is covered by a canopy of trees, blocking most of the street lights, porch lights and other illumination we see from the ground. It was a telling portrait to see the entire city at once, realizing how many trees there are here. By contrast, open fields begin at the city’s edge in virtually every direction and the lake is marked only by the absence of light.

As we soared across the city, familiar themes emerged. The southern expansion is clearly evident. Valley Mills was easily the greatest concentration of activity, at least in terms of illumination and traffic. But Waco Drive, or U.S. Highway 84, southward is also very busy, and the growth of the Highway 6 corridor between Bosque Boulevard and I-35 is easy to spot from the air.

As we spent a few minutes above McLane Stadium, those “clusters” of lights along I-35 looking south painted a pretty clear picture of Waco’s growth trend. Yet another picture is beginning to emerge, one that’s been talked about quite a bit since the stadium was announced in 2011.

McLane will spur growth downtown and points north and east, but if illumination is any indication, there’s not a lot of business activity in the immediate vicinity of the stadium right now.

We’ve heard a lot of people question the wisdom of locating the stadium by the river, citing potential traffic and pedestrian issues. It’s important to keep in mind that the infrastructure around McLane is still in its infancy. The stadium is there, and I-35 is there, but that entire area will change drastically over the next few years.

It’s a given that more infrastructure will be needed in that area, not only for the stadium but for the businesses that rush to locate near it. Exits on I-35 north of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard can expect commercial shots in the arm as well.

Baylor University has spent a lot of time and money preparing for game day. Things won’t be perfect on Aug. 31, but it won’t be from lack of trying. Once the stadium opens, new projects and needs will emerge.

Another thought crossed my mind during last week’s flight. The stretch of the Brazos River through Waco is only beginning to be harvested from an economic standpoint. Every day we hear about some new idea to cater to game-day crowds, many of which involve the river. Expect more ideas involving the Brazos moving forward, many of which won’t hinge on stadium traffic. Much development between Franklin and I-35 will focus the gaze of our community on the river even more.

As we drifted off to the south, I caught a last look at the stadium from a couple of miles out. The word “beacon” just keeps resonating with me as we flew away. To the south there was a constant stream of lights, traffic, development and growth as far as the eye can see. To the north, McLane’s lights stood out because they’re all that’s there ... so far.

Reminder: The Waco Tribune-Herald is producing a preview of the new stadium. Our staff has pulled together the complete story of McLane Stadium into a 100-page book, which we’ll insert into the Friday, Aug. 29 edition of the Trib.

The first football game at McLane is that night and then the Bears christen their new home Sunday, Aug. 31.

Expect crowds that first Baylor game. The Bears begin the season as No. 10 team in the nation, according to the Amway Top 25 preseason coaches poll. Coach Art Briles has steadily transformed the Baylor football program into a consistent winner and, in an indirect but consequential way, helped Waco transform its image as well.

In the nighttime sky, McLane’s lights are pretty lonesome right now. But not for long. That stadium is changing how this city is viewed on so many levels — including the one from 800 feet up.

Steve Boggs is editor of the Tribune-Herald. Email sboggs@wacotrib.com.

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