Civic leader Nancy Grayson’s mug ought to run alongside the word “headstrong” in the dictionary. We remember her stunningly effective, forceful leadership at the Rapoport Academy, which she founded in economically struggling East Waco. When she opened Lula Jane’s as a bakery, also in East Waco, quality and uncompromising management were the last things anyone worried about.
So we weren’t surprised when Grayson and city of Waco leaders butted heads over, of all things, roll-down metal doors she incorporated into her historically evocative rehabilitation of an old building at 704 Elm into what is now a nearly finished nonprofit grocery store. Problem? The downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board pledged $98,000 to this renovation project, based on Grayson’s success and its potentially paving way for other revitalization. Great. But when Grayson asked TIF to repurpose $22,000 for exterior work, she didn’t realize till afterward the amendment’s conditions required removal of the roll-down metal doors already installed. The doors, she says, are a necessity for daily operations.
Some might grouse about City Hall red tape here, but this misses a crucial point: When an entrepreneur seeks taxpayer dollars on condition he or she abide by, say, overlay district restrictions to ensure architectural and historical uniformity, one faces a choice: Accept the cash with strings attached or go your own way. And as District 1 Councilwoman Andrea J. Barefield argues, residents fret that roll-down doors and bars on windows send the wrong message about a neighborhood now poised for astounding growth: “As we are revitalizing our community and as we are building new opportunities within our district, I want to always feel a welcoming environment. And I think that’s how the community feels.”
This is where the “headstrong” part comes in: In terse remarks to the Waco City Council at its July 16 meeting regarding the possibility of Grayson’s losing TIF funds by retaining and regularly using the roll-down doors, Grayson insisted objections to the doors came late in the process. She added: “No one is eager to open a market on Elm or in East Waco to alleviate this food desert. [Husband] Bob and I are willing to give this a try. However, we need the support of council to make this happen in a way that contributes to success. Ultimately, having a market on Elm is contingent upon your decision here today. Taking away the TIF funds is a deal-breaker and a slap in our face. We are not big developers. We’re just trying to do something positive.”
We advise that cooler heads consider an earned variance, one recognizing not only Grayson’s considerable work in this neighborhood (while others only talked), not only the fact she doesn’t do things slipshod, but also the extenuating circumstances involved. Concerns about roll-down doors must be juxtaposed with a serious concern we’ve heard far longer: the lack of a neighborhood grocery store with fresh produce as opposed to another convenience store stamping East Waco as a “food desert.” To allow this project involving a local entrepreneur at this juncture to implode is to heap blemish on Elm Avenue undertakings to come. Leadership, anyone?