Waco riding riverfront into new era

03/10/2014 4:59 PM

03/10/2014 5:00 PM

Most tourists traveling the Interstate 35 corridor would never confuse Waco with an energetic and vibrant place like Austin, or with San Antonio, which offers its own unique blend of tradition and cultural heritage.

Waco has endured an identity crisis for decades. Not since the halcyon days of the Cotton Palace in the 1930s has the city offered travelers many reasons to add it to their vacation choices.

If you ask most people what they know about Waco, they will likely tell you it is near the site of the deadly Branch Davidian siege, or that it was the closest city to the Crawford ranch retreat where former President George W. Bush vacationed and cleared his share of brush.

Someone once said that lots of things happen around Waco, but not much actually happens in Waco.

As home to Baylor, the largest Baptist university in the world, Waco has long maintained an image as a straight-laced, churchgoing community.

Baylor famously celebrated its first on-campus dance in 1996, and the community there is still recovering from the shock. If Oklahoma is considered the Bible Belt of the nation, then surely Waco must represent the place where Texas buckles its collective religious britches.

Now Waco is in the midst of an image makeover that threatens to break it out of decades of civic lethargy. Baylor’s continued growth and recent athletic success may finally offer the city that signature landmark it has long been missing.

If you’ve driven I-35 through Waco recently, you have probably noticed the 14-story structure rising from the banks of the Brazos River. Baylor’s $260 million riverfront football stadium, set to open this fall, will have a seating capacity of 45,000 fans, with the option of eventual expansion to 55,000.

A major river walk project is in the works near the stadium site, planned for hotels, restaurants and retail shops.

These new developments will finally employ the vast and under-used resources of the Brazos, one of Texas’ greatest waterways.

There has also been significant progress in the revitalization of downtown Waco, as many once-deserted buildings in the old warehouse district have been converted to restaurants and shops. New hotels and lofts are greatly enhancing the vitality of a downtown that has long been dormant and sluggish.

Baylor University and its growth are intertwined with the general welfare of Waco. The school has enjoyed unprecedented success in fund raising and campus growth in recent years.

Baylor athletic programs have made enormous progress recently, vaulting the school into the national spotlight in the largest revenue-producing sports of football and men’s and women’s basketball.

Football coach Art Briles has revived a long-dormant program and won its first-ever Big-12 championship last season while qualifying for its fourth consecutive post-season appearance.

The new Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC) is the flagship project for the Central Texas Technology and Research Park, an initiative to develop, market and promote science and engineering technologies and university research.

Administrators say it could eventually bring as many as 22,000 jobs to the area and add $4.2 billion to the Central Texas economy.

The new Baylor riverfront stadium remains the lynchpin of the city’s larger master plan, but it is only one integral part of the larger project aimed at transforming this quiet old town into a much more dynamic community in the coming decade.

City planners hope to soon have travelers reassessing those images they once had of Waco.

Bob Vickrey is on the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald.

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