Downtown Waco meeting eyes issues, future baseball stadium

Politics



Multiple organizations have expressed interest in developing a minor league baseball stadium in Waco, one element of a downtown market study underway that also considers a new convention center, hotel and other mixed-use developments on some 60 acres around City Hall.

Stakeholders met Thursday with the consulting firm responsible for conducting the study, Chicago-based Hunden Partners.

The market study will build on a foundation laid out by global architecture firm Gensler’s master plan for downtown. The plan includes a baseball stadium near the former Indian Spring Middle School campus, razing the Waco Convention Center and building a new one nearby, a performing arts center and new amenities along the riverfront.

President and CEO Rob Hunden said his firm’s work differs from the Gensler plan in that master plans are oriented toward hopes and dreams, but often are not rooted in economic reality. Hunden Partners is focused on translating market opportunities into best practices, marketplace trends, demand and financial projections and impact.

“So our job is to sort of find that nexus of hopes and dreams and the hard market truth that we all have to sort of deal with when it comes to building and operating anything,” Hunden said.

City Manager Bradley Ford said in an email the baseball stadium idea and team criteria will ultimately rely on the findings of the Hunden study and the master developer the city chooses for the project. Ford said he suspects city council will select a developer in the next few weeks.

The city’s interest in baseball began about a year and a half ago when an experienced ownership group expressed interest in Waco, Ford said. The city began exploring ballpark concepts in the greater downtown vision, and it has received interest ranging from independent baseball leagues to Double-A minor league affiliate developers, he said.

Ford said a potential team would need to bring previous operation experience and ability, as well as a long-term financial commitment to construction, a long-term lease of the facility or both.

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park in North Carolina and Parkview Field, home of the Fort Wayne, Indiana, TinCaps, come to mind as great examples of how to integrate baseball into a mixed-use project, he said. Minor league parks can receive some 40% of their attendance from non-baseball activities, he said.

“Both of these projects used sports and entertainment as key components to kick-start multi-phase projects,” Ford said. “Both projects bring hundreds of thousands of people annually to these mixed-use districts with baseball and other uses. … Fort Wayne, for example, does an annual symphony concert on July Fourth at the stadium, which has become a highlight of their community’s event calendar.”

The city will want an operator that understands the ballpark’s role in downtown, with visions that align for multiple uses of the stadium, possibly including tournaments and showcases, movie nights in the outfield, weddings and corporate events, Ford said.

“The process for locating a team in Waco is directly tied to the development of a facility as well as significant coordination with various baseball governing entities,” he said. “This is a multi-year process and something that takes significant efforts by local government, baseball team owners and others.”

Downtown discussion

The group gathered Thursday to discuss downtown’s current state, proposed projects and potential improvements included representatives from several of the area’s prominent groups and attractions, including the Cameron Park Zoo, Dr Pepper Museum, Magnolia and Balcones Distilling.

Hunden said his group met Wednesday with a group of hoteliers and got a “whirlwind tour” of some of the notable spots.

Justin Edwards, area manager for the Waco Hilton and Courtyard by Marriott properties downtown, said Waco is outgrowing its convention center, as several events have come through town needing more space or different amenities than what it can accommodate.

He said with more than 1,000 new hotel rooms in the pipeline for the next few years, hoteliers are concerned with how to fill those rooms at Waco’s current activity level.

Stakeholders agreed that Magnolia’s expansion and its success have been a driving force in downtown’s transformation already.

Texas Ranger Hall of Fame Director Byron Johnson said the catalysts have been Magnolia and the realization that Waco’s housing stock has sat far below the national average market value, “a gold mine waiting to be taken advantage of.”

The talk highlighted connectivity between points of interest as an issue in many ways. Looking at connectivity in terms of walkability rules out downtown-adjacent attractions, such as the Mayborn Museum, Cameron Park Zoo, Hawaiian Falls and others, though walkability could still improve. Hawaiian Falls marketing director Ron McKenzie warned of oversaturation in downtown, creating a greater disconnect for attractions outside the bubble.

Even inside the downtown bubble similar attractions are not clustered and niches are not realized, Johnson said, commending Magnolia’s ability to home in on a niche. There is a little bit of something for everyone spread around with little coordination, creating a fragmented market, he said.

“The question is how to feed those niches specifically so it’s not just this broad brush generalized thing that you can’t really make anything out of,” Johnson said.

Sites are not connected and bouncing visitors off of each other like they should, the group agreed.

Johnson said public transportation does not connect directly to attraction areas either, leaving riders still to walk a ways from the nearest bus stop.

Another issue the group mostly agreed on was the sleepiness of downtown outside of the 9-to-5 buzz, rolling up the carpet after dinner with few options for late-night dining or entertainment other than bars.

Mike Vogelaar, Greater Waco Sports Commission executive director, agreed and said when he went to Baylor University years ago connectivity between campus and downtown was nonexistent, though the new Foster Pavilion should help bridge the gap.

“I would say downtown is not hip,” Vogelaar said. “It’s not attractive. It’s not really luring the next generation, which I think is going to be your next group of families, your next group of income, your growth and development economically for this community.”

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