Before the sucker punch of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the through-line for Waco news was growth: Growth at Baylor University, construction along Interstate 35, and activity bubbling up in downtown amid the spell of Magnolia madness.
In 2022, with the pandemic somewhat abated, growth and development have returned as key themes as the Tribune-Herald staff reflected on the top stories of the year. Cranes mark the city skyline, building a riverfront basketball arena, new schools and new overpasses. Much of the growth has been sought by local leaders, but it has come with headaches: high housing prices and property taxes, fears of gentrification, and cost overruns blamed on supply chain issues and inflation.
Meanwhile, nature continues to collect its due: The coronavirus has not finished wreaking havoc on the population, and a yearlong drought has reminded the city of the limits of human planning. Human nature also continues to make headlines, whether it is horrific murders rooted in domestic violence, or the rough and tumble of local politics.
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Here then, are some of the biggest stories that kept us working late this year.
Waco has seen drier and hotter years than this one. But residents felt the gravity of the drought of 2022 every time they picked up a garden hose.
Lake Waco began the year two feet below normal and has fallen steadily since then to more than 11.5 feet down, the lake’s lowest point since it was raised in 2003.
For the past six months, the city and its suburban customers have been under Stage 2 drought restrictions, the first water rationing since the lake was raised and likely the first since the lake’s impoundment in 1964, municipal old-timers say.
Rationing is routine in Texas, and even without rainfall in the next few months Lake Waco still is in no danger of drying up, with 56.5% of its capacity left. But the drought has laid bare the vulnerability of a water resource that is usually abundant and a source of pride for Waco boosters.
Lake Waco has suffered from the drought more than other area lakes such as Lake Belton and Lake Whitney, which have much larger watersheds. Most of Lake Waco’s water comes from the North Bosque River, fed by runoff from a narrow sliver of Central Texas stretching into Bosque and Erath counties. Heavy but spotty rains in the fall largely skipped the North Bosque watershed.
The area that feeds the river, including McLennan County, has mostly been in significant drought since late 2021, and most of it remained in severe drought as of this week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Waco has fared better than some areas to the west, such as Coryell County, but still received only 20.76 inches, a startling deficit of 15 inches from normal, and worse than the 2011 drought of record.
This has been seventh-driest year on record, bested by 13.4 inches in 1917, as well as some readings in the 1950s, 1963 and 1999.
In terms of heat, Waco in 2022 saw 68 days reach 100 degrees or hotter, a runner-up to the record-setting 90 days in 2011.
Climatologists have attributed the drought to a combination of global climate change dynamics and the La Niña weather pattern that is now in its third year. However, National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center officials report the La Niña pattern, which favors warm, dry weather in Texas, will likely end by spring.
The year’s close found the Waco Independent School District breaking ground on two of four schools in the landmark $355 million school bond package that voters approved in 2021.
The year also saw Midway ISD open its new Park Hill Elementary School and a new Career & Technology Education wing at Midway High School, included in a $148 million bond issue approved in 2019. The new school and renovations at five others were part of a districtwide school realignment that saw attendance zones shift for several schools. In Connally ISD, voters for the second year in a row turned down a $39 million bond issue aimed at replacing the district’s 60-year-old elementary school.
Construction challenges, ill-timed rainy weather and supply chain issues slowed progress on Waco ISD’s new G.W. Carver Middle School and Waco High School, which had groundbreaking ceremonies in 2022. District officials remain optimistic Carver and Waco High will open on time, fall 2023 for Carver and the fall of 2025 for Waco High.
Site preparation started for Tennyson Middle School as did the plans for Kendrick Elementary School, the other two schools covered in the bond package. Some Waco ISD trustees and community members repeatedly called for the school board to reconsider the secondary school designs in light of the potential threat of an in-school shooter.
Starting at the end of September, mystery shrouded the shocking killing of five people on a residential block in McGregor, including two teenagers.
On Sept. 29, McGregor police reported an officer shot Nicolas Jaimes-Hernandez as he was shooting at a neighbor. He was arrested on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sent to an area hospital for treatment. Authorities soon found in his household the bodies of Monica Delgado, 38, and her children, Miguel Avila, 15, and Natallie Avila, 14.
Next door were found the bodies of Lorena “Lori” Aviles and her daughter, Natalie Aviles, 20.
An investigation by the Texas Rangers revealed a horrific narrative. According to affidavits, Jaimes-Hernandez shot Delgado, his domestic partner, along with her teen children from a previous relationship, on the night of Sept. 28. Three younger children of Jaimes-Hernandez and Delgado were at home during the shooting, and their father kept them in the house all night while carrying a gun, according to the affidavit.
Video surveillance helped investigators determine Jaimes-Hernandez fatally shot Lori Aviles, his next-door neighbor, as she was taking out the trash the following morning, then killed her adult daughter, according to affidavits.
Jaimes-Hernandez faces capital murder charges in the case.
“Done” is a relative term, but Texas Department of Transportation, Baylor University, city and county officials celebrated the early completion of the I-35 road widening project through Waco with a ribbon cutting Nov. 9.
Webber LLC, under contract with TxDOT with incentives for early completion, finished the $341 million reconstruction and widening of a 6-mile stretch of I-35 between 12th Street and North Loop 340 a year-and-a-half early.
Work remains to be done on some pedestrian crossings and elements related to access roads.
During November’s ceremony, Webber project manager Paloma Fernandez Ruiz said the pedestrian areas under the I-35 bridges, including the bridge where officials held the ceremony, are some of the most complicated parts of the widening project.
As Webber wound down Interstate 35, it rounded the corner to Loop 340 to ramp up another giant road project.
The $55 million highway project carries the name “mall-to-mall” because it stretches from Richland Mall to Central Texas Marketplace, two high-profile retail concentrations in Greater Waco.
The 3.5-mile project is half done, no doubt a relief to automobile dealerships operating beside the work zone. So far Richard Karr Cadillac, Allen Samuels Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram and Jeff Hunter Toyota appear to have borne the brunt of blocked entrances, detours and flying dust, but say the finished product should prove worthwhile.
Texas Department of Transportation spokesperson Jake Smith said the project should draw to a close when 2023 does the same.
The mall-to-mall project is meant to create continuous frontage roads between Central Texas Marketplace at Bagby Avenue and Richland Mall at Highway 84. Crews are building U-turn bridges and reconfiguring entrance and exit ramps, producing a smoother traffic flow.
The Owens-Illinois glass plant on Beverly Drive also has felt repercussions from mall-to-mall inconveniences. Deliveries via Union Pacific rail and big rigs have been discontinued or rerouted as circumstances dictate.
The city of Waco has spent nearly 40 years trying to turn the downtown riverfront into a showcase of urban vitality, featuring hotels, restaurants and places to live and work.
The first effort fizzled in the 1980s real estate bust with California developers leaving behind a pleasant riverfront sidewalk that has tended to draw more ducks than people. Other grand plans have come and gone.
Now the partnerships, political will and money are in place for one of the biggest developments in Waco history, anchored by Baylor University’s new basketball arena.
The city and Baylor at the end of 2021 announced their partnership to redevelop the riverfront, and in 2022 it is taking shape. Crews have erected the steel skeleton of the $213 million Foster Pavilion, which is set to host its first Big 12 basketball games in January 2024.
Catalyst Urban Development is working on the residential-retail first phase of the mixed-use Riverfront development just upstream and has agreed to add two new riverfront restaurants and outdoor amenities by 2025.
The Tax Increment Financing Zone board this week approved more than $30 million to reshape the riverwalk from Clay Avenue to near the Baylor Law School, reconstruct University Parks Drive, build parking garages and bury overhead electrical lines.
Catalyst is aiming for 389 housing units and some 32,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space by mid-2025 and then to shift focus to a full-service riverfront hotel on Webster Avenue with 110 rooms joined by a spa, restaurant and conference center.
Zoo costs skyrocket
Cameron Park Zoo’s plans to add a new hoofstock barn, a building with a veterinary hospital and educational space, and a penguin exhibit ended up costing far more than the $14.5 million bond county voters passed in 2019 could possibly cover.
After cost estimates rose to between $22 million and $25 million, the city of Waco pitched in an additional $3.35 million and asked McLennan County and the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society to do the same, raising enough to cover the $6.8 million cost increase and any other expenses that might crop up as the projects progress.
City, county and society officials celebrated a groundbreaking Dec. 22 for both the veterinary and education center and the South African black footed penguin exhibit. The penguin exhibit is slated for completion in summer of 2024.
That same week, the Waco City Council approved a $14.7 million contract with John W. Erwin General Contractor for the veterinary hospital and education center.
With delivery giant Amazon delaying or pulling the plug entirely on several construction projects nationally, local officials may have suffered the jitters when a 2021 target date for Waco’s new fulfillment center came and went. Expectations were going unfulfilled, to say the least.
But the fog lifted July 23, when operations started in the $250 million, robot-assisted plant on Exchange Parkway. Amazon in 2020 said it would hire at least 1,000 people making no less than $15 an hour to staff the facility. Both numbers proved low. Company spokesperson Daniel Martin said the crew had swollen to more than 2,000 by opening day, and starting pay was more like $16 to $17 an hour. Then October rolled around, and Amazon said it would hire another 500 seasonal employees to meet demand.
Amazon earlier in the year announced a $1 billion investment in raises systemwide, hoping to lift starting pay above $19 an hour.
The Waco fulfillment center receives merchandise from around the country, then forwards items to Amazon sorting and delivery stations. Packages do not go directly from Waco to customers’ homes, not even those in Waco.
COVID-19 yet again showed its unpredictability in 2022 with a surge in early 2022 triggering peaks in hospitalizations and cases and 52 deaths in January, the fifth most fatal month locally during the nearly three year old pandemic.
A second surge that started in July was less severe. Daily cases reported reached a high of 150 cases with only four deaths reported for the month. The county reached the milestone of 900 deaths due to COVID-19 in October.
COVID-19 cases began to rise again in December, but were overshadowed by concern for high rates of influenza and influenza-like cases, with more than 500 cases reported for each.
New subvariants of the coronavirus are now sweeping the country, showing an aptness to infect even the previously infected or vaccinated, though health officials say vaccination still lessens the severity of the disease.
In McLennan County, daily hospitalizations for COVID-19 have risen from the single digits through much of the fall to an average of 17 in December, with numbers in the high 20s this week. McLennan County saw its 913th death from COVID-19 this week, a reminder of the disease’s ongoing danger.
The gloves came off Jan. 20 as incumbent Barry Johnson and primary challenger Josh Tetens traded verbal jabs at a Republican Club lunch in the race to be nominated for McLennan County district attorney.
McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara went on to endorse Tetens, who then won the Republican Party primary March 1, followed by a November general election victory over Aubrey Robertson, a Democrat.
Johnson began his remarks in January by touting accomplishments, but quickly shifted to verbally attack Tetens, saying that all he has done in his career as a criminal defense attorney was “to let violent offenders, wife beaters and other dangerous people back on the streets.”
Tetens returned the attack, painting Johnson as a civil attorney who had yet to try a single criminal case himself, and painting his office as the weak link in the local criminal justice system.
The Johnson-Tetens showdown became the most hotly contested local race for the March 1 primary as McNamara campaigned for Tetens in television ads.
Whatever McNamara’s influence, Tetens managed to give Johnson the boot in the primary, winning 70% of the Republican vote before going on to win the November election easily. Tetens will take office Jan. 1, facing an enormous load of cases that have not yet going to trial, largely due to the pandemic.
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