Downtown Waco: A little history…

By Rolando Rodriguez Soto

(This post is part of an on-going series about Downtown Waco. In a sense, Downtown is “everybody’s neighborhood.”  In this series of blog posts we hope to contribute to the on-going conversation in Waco about what it takes to have a great downtown, and what we want for our own “Wacotown.” To see all the posts in this series, click here: Downtown Waco. – ABT) 

I may not be able to say that I am a Waco native, but I have lived in Waco since I was two years old. Downtown to me has always been just place with the ALICO and where my parents went if they needed to go to a city office.

Just recently I spent a little time paging through a book called, A Pictorial History of Waco.  The pictures in the “pictorial history” show a lively city with an animated downtown, full of energy.  When I compare those pictures to the downtown I grew up in, I’ll admit it evokes a little melancholy.  What happened?  Why did downtown Waco decline?

At the turn of the 20th century, Waco was one of the largest cities in Texas, and one of the fastest growing. “Cotton was king,” as the saying goes, and Waco was one the largest cotton markets in this country.

After the depression hit in 1929, the cotton market suffered in Waco. On top of that, the area experienced four years of the worst drought it had ever had.  Then, after World War I, manufacturers found they could import cheaper cotton from South America. The market for Waco cotton plummeted.  It wasn’t until a new military presence came into Waco after World War II that Waco truly pulled out of the depression.

Despite these setbacks, however, Waco maintained a vibrant, working downtown through the 1930’s and 40’s. Don Davis, a fifth-generation native Wacoan and executive director of the Historic Waco Foundation, recounted some of his memories of downtown Waco in the early 50s to me. Davis remembers going into shops, bakeries, and restaurants, going to his barber, and visiting his father’s office – all downtown.

“Growing up in Waco, I remember when downtown was very vibrant with lots of stores and lots of people,” Davis said. “Austin Ave was our main drag, and in junior high, we went up and down the street. It was exciting times.”

In 1953, a devastating tornado ripped through Waco. It was part of a 33-tornado outbreak that affected 10 different U.S. states. It struck Waco on May 11, 1953. Nearly 600 people were injured and 114 died; it is still considered the deadliest tornado in U.S. history.  The twister demolished hundreds of houses and structures, and wiped out a significant portion of downtown Waco.

In the 50s and early 60s, businesses began moving out of the downtown area into new shopping centers. The first mall was the Westview Shopping Center on Valley Mills Dr. The Lake Air Mall (which is now Target) was soon to follow. With major retailers like Sears leaving downtown, Waco’s city center became abandoned.

The city attempted several times to reverse the trend, but they all ultimately failed. For example, the city closed Austin Ave to cars to create a walking, outdoor mall with canopies and trees. People still wouldn’t come to downtown. Merchants complained because they were losing business without people driving along Austin Ave.  By the 70’s and 80’s the once bustling downtown Waco felt like a ghost town.

Then something good began to happen.  In the early 2000s development efforts started to gain some traction.  River Square Center, which currently has Spice Village, Trojan’s, Ninfa’s and other businesses and restaurants, came to life… people started moving downtown and building loft apartments.  These new downtown residents needed businesses and services. Most recently McLane Stadium and the Magnolia Market have lured thousands of visitors downtown.

Mr. Davis welcomes the new developments in downtown, and he pointed out one of the best parts of the revitalization is that many of the older buildings are being saved while blending in more contemporary developments.  This maintains the history and character of downtown.

Eric Ames, author of Images of America: Waco, also values the slow progress of the recent developments.  He believes a measured pace ensures that the new businesses are finding a needed market in downtown as well as maintaining the historic value of Waco.

“We do have a large amount of buildings and features downtown that have been around since the late 19th century,” Ames said. “You have to be careful about changing them too much. Once you take away the historic value, you can’t get it back. “

Ames went on to say that these buildings and features in Waco help tell the stories. If everything in downtown looked new, you would lose that connection to how downtown has evolved from the vibrant era to the tornado to the failed revitalization attempts and finally to the hopeful present.

I went to high school at A. J. Moore Academy (now Indian Spring Middle School), and unlike Mr. Davis’s stories of spending his high school days hanging out on Austin Avenue, I never ventured the few blocks into downtown. Since becoming a Baylor student, however, downtown has become more of a destination.

We are moving in the right direction.  The potential is there.  Our best days might not be the days pictured in “The Pictorial History of Downtown Waco, ” they might be the ones just ahead of us!

Rolando Rodriguez Soto was raised in Waco, TX, and he is currently attending Baylor University with plans to graduate in December 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing & Rhetoric. After graduation, he hopes to work in Waco in the nonprofit sector to help realize the full potential of Waco. His long term goals include hopefully creating and publishing creative work whether that is a novel, short story or even a television show.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these Aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.


Waco High Journeys “Under the Sea” with Mermaid!

By K’Lynn Childress

As the directors of the Waco High Musical Theatre Department, we’ve had the opportunity to “go” a lot of places. A few years ago, we went to the jungle with our production of Tarzan. Last year, we traveled to Paris with She Loves Me.  In the early years of the musical theatre program we went to Egypt in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and went into the woods in…well, in Into the Woods.

Last year, as we started thinking about where we wanted to go this season, one place rose to the top of the list very quickly—under the sea. Music Theatre International, the licensing agent for many musicals, made the rights to the stage version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid available at the end of Summer 2015 and we knew that we wanted to jump at the chance to be one of the first schools to produce it.  We couldn’t keep it a secret for long, and announced our plans on opening night of She Loves Me that Fall.

We tend to start planning for shows right away, even when they’re months out, and this was no different. Ideas were bounced around, but when Cory Garrett (Waco High Technical Director) suggested setting our under the sea tale in the world of Old Hollywood, Vegas, Vaudeville and Follies, we knew that our love for spectacle and this classic story would perfectly blend in this concept. Research began with Cory at the design helm, and with student designer Julian Nicholson at his side, we soon had a set design that centered around the classic Vegas-style staircase with plenty of glitz, glam, and glitter thrown in (we REALLY love glitter!).

Dion Grisby, Julian Nicholson

Construction began just after the 2016-2017 school year began, with Julian Nicholson heading up the crews as Student Technical Director and Alex Lujan as Construction Crew Head. An unprecedented number of tech students showed up to every single rehearsal to tirelessly work to bring the design to life. The vast majority of the set was constructed entirely by students, under Mr. Garrett’s oversight. We never cease to be amazed at what these students are capable of doing.

While the set was going up, plans for other technical components were well underway. In a show like The Little Mermaid, you already assume that you’ll be using plenty of fun colors and creativity, but when you add the extra element of setting the story in the world of Vegas razzle-dazzle you end up with quite the job ahead of you. Fortunately, we received a grant from the WISD Education Foundation for the creation of a costume and makeup lab, so we were ready for the challenge.

When all was said and done, we ended up with 108 different costumes for 45 performers. These costumes, designed by Mr. Garrett with the help of Student Designer Dion Grisby, were truly a labor of love. They were the product of multiple orders from Amazon (for individual pieces that were then altered, modified, and pieced together), trips to Dallas for some of the most beautiful fabric I’ve ever laid eyes on, 3 professional seamstresses, 2 choir directors who always swear they aren’t going to make any costumes but always do (Carrie Forehand and Christie Lujan are the BEST), innumerable burns from hot glue guns and dozens of students working together to create beautiful sea creatures, amazing foam wigs and the most fabulous mermaids you’ve ever seen.

This was the most ambitious production WHS Musical Theatre has ever taken on, but we definitely operate with a “great risk—great reward mindset”, and our students never disappoint. This year, we added two locations to our travel list as we went both under the sea and under the big lights of Old Hollywood and Las Vegas. We’re not sure just yet where next year will take us, but we know one thing for certain—we’re so happy to be going there with the amazing students, staff, administration and supporters of Waco High and Waco ISD.

Corey Garrett, Carrie Forehand, Christie Lujan

K’Lynn Childress is the Director of Theatre Arts at Waco High School. She, Cory Garrett, Carrie Forehand, and Christie Lujan make up the faculty of the Waco High Musical Theatre Department. Now in her 6th year of teaching at Waco High, K’Lynn is also the Speech and Debate coach and UIL Academic Coordinator. In the rare times she’s not at the school she enjoys photography, attempting to teach herself calligraphy, spending too much time on Reddit, and Steel City Pops.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email  for more information.

Texas Success Initiative Assessment (TSIA)

(The Heart of Texas P-20 Council includes representatives from K-12 education, higher education and employers. They meet regularly to help coordinate efforts to launch our young people into productive lives as workers and citizens. This post is one in a monthly series of posts intended to share information about the work of this important group in our community. For more posts in this series, click here: P-20 education. – ABT)

By Christine Holecek

The TSI Assessment (TSIA) is part of the Texas Success Initiative program designed to help your college or university determine if you are ready for college-level course work in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics. If you are an incoming college student in Texas, you are required to take the TSI Assessment – unless you are already exempt through ACT or SAT or other exemptions – to determine your readiness for college-level work. Based on how you perform, you may either be enrolled in a college-level course and/or be placed in the appropriate developmental course or intervention to improve your skills and prepare you for success in college- level courses.

The HOT P-20 Council is addressing some strategies to help students and ISD’s better prepare for the TSIA and move towards College Readiness. In a recent meeting held at Education Service Center Region 12 the following strategies were addressed.

  1. Develop a TSIA test taking strategies guide to share out:
    • Describe the type of writing prompt (use of spare paper, proof reading, use of paragraphs)
    • Pay attention to the word count
    • This is not the STAAR writing test
    • How to physically and mentally prepare for the TSIA
    • Recommend timing strategies – Testing freshman as they complete Algebra I
    • Recommend resources, apps, and other tools to help students better prepare for the test
  2. Offer varied TSIA Boot Camp options to include:
    • test taking strategies/Pre-Assessment Activity/test preparatory option
    • intense training on TSI sections with test taking and college preparation strategies, Math/Writing
    • refreshers for students who haven’t taken Math or writing in over a year before taking the TSI
  3. Make TSIA testing available to HS and college faculty – Algebra II and English III teachers to take the test and help formulate questions that are similar
  4. Promote the Waco Querium (A computer-based program for reinforcing STEM skils) cohort among local schools and colleges
  5. Disaggregate TSIA diagnostic data by ISDs and share out with individual school districts
  6. Share aggregate TSI diagnostic trend data with the community, use in College Prep courses and share with high school curriculum coordinators
  7. Getting the word out on the importance of the TSIA to parents, faculty and community
  8. Emphasize the importance of the College Prep courses to students, parents, faculty and school administrators

The HOT P-20 Council meets monthly at ESC Region 12 from 8:00 – 9:00. Please contact or to get involved or for more information.

This Act Locally Waco blog post was written by Christine Holecek. Christine is an Education Specialist at Education Service Center Region 12 in Waco. She has worked in the area of Adult Education and Career & Technical Education for the past 25 years. She earned an AAS degree from MCC, a BAAS and Master’s Degree from the University of North Texas and is currently enrolled in the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Tarleton State University.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.

Creatives come together for Santa’s Arts Market

By Caitlin Giddens

thumbnail_santas-arts-market-2If you’re looking for last-minute Christmas gifts, then you’re in luck. Santa’s Arts Market will be held on Saturday, December 17, from 12-4 p.m. in Heritage Square. After taking your free photo with Santa, shop from Waco’s finest arts and craft vendors— including Black Oak Art, featured in this week’s “Fixer Upper” — plus Waco Woodworks, Misguided Good Girls, Wood Burning by Marsha, E2 Creative, local jewelers, potters, painters and more.

This arts market is more than a shopping opportunity — it’s a collection of our community’s creativity and a celebration of Downtown Waco’s Cultural District designation. “This year has been all about artists coming together to support each other,” Fiona Bond, executive director of Creative Waco, said.

thumbnail_santas-arts-market-collageThis Saturday, you can shop for handmade Christmas gifts at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then come to Santa’s Arts Market to finish your shopping list. There will be a range of goods for sale, including leather, metal, pottery, canvases and more traditional paintings and prints.

Susan Sistrunk and Jesus Rivera, two local artists commissioned to create ornaments for the State Capitol Christmas Tree, will sell custom painted ornaments at the market. Sistrunk’s glitter-filled ornaments will feature five different landmarks in Waco. “The customer will choose the fill and the landmark, and the ornament will be painted upon request,” Sistrunk said. “They will each be signed and numbered for the occasion, making this an extremely limited edition.”

At Santa’s Arts Market, you’ll find a truly unique gift while enjoying live jazz music, cute carolers, treats from Pokey-O’s and the best hot chocolate in town. Bring your families and pets and celebrate our city’s creativity!

caitlin-giddensCaitlin Giddens is a writer, an educator and an arts enthusiast. She enjoys instilling her love of literature and art in others. You can contact Caitlin at

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email  for more information.