Bringing Smart Growth to Waco, Texas

Bringing Smart Growth to Waco, Texas

Waco’s mayor, Dillon Meek, and city manager, Bradley Ford, give us an inside look at their city government, from economic development to winter storm management.

Like a lot of people, Dillon Meek and Bradley Ford are bullish on the future of Waco. As mayor and city manager, respectively, of one of the fastest-growing cities in Texas, Meek and Ford have operated as a team since fall of 2020 to continue Waco’s momentum in a smart way. For them, growth is good—but it needs to happen in a way that serves everyone in the community, and without overwhelming the city’s infrastructure.

We talked to Meek and Ford about what at their jobs entail, how they think about continuing Waco’s post–Fixer Upper revitalization, and how, early in their tenures, they managed last February’s catastrophic winter storm.

Waco City Manager Bradley Ford and Mayor Dillon Meek

TEXAS CEO: Starting off, can you explain the roles of the mayor and city manager in Waco?

BRADLEY FORD: It’s similar to the board chair and CEO roles that Texas CEOs will be familiar with. Much like a board, the six people on City Council oversee policy and big-picture strategy, and are led by the mayor, who in this analogy is the board chair. As city manager, my role is to implement and execute on the strategy, much like a CEO in the business world. Together, we’re accountable to 140,000 Wacoans.

DILLON MEEK: Right. The mayor convenes the meetings of City Council, which sets the priorities and policies and budget for the city. We have a public interfacing role, and act as a conduit between city operations and Wacoans. The scope of what Bradley is responsible for operationally as the city manager is significant. He and his team manage all of the city’s business, which includes economic development, public health, streets, trash services, water infrastructure, emergency management, museums, even a zoo and more.

FORD: In an emergency, things do have to shift a bit. The mayor becomes that front-facing voice. Mayor Meek did a tremendous job at that during the winter storm in February. Under Texas law, he’s got a role in an emergency and takes on a more involved leadership role.

TEXAS CEO: What was the experience of leading through the winter storm like?

MEEK: I first want to commend our city staff, who worked around the clock to keep the city safe. It’s because of their dedication and preparedness that Waco fared as well as we did.

Like a lot of cities, we had multiple issues going on during the storm. The first was water supply concerns. We lost power to one of our two treatment facilities, then we started to have system malfunctions at the other one due to the excessively low temperatures. We all had to conserve water to keep from going on a boilwater notice and, together, were able to achieve that goal. Many cities in Texas were not able to avoid that.

It was also important to us to keep the water on so the fire department could fight fires. The Waco way is to have a plan A, a plan B, and a Plan C. We were already thinking through a plan to pump water from the Brazos River to fight fires if the water did go off. Unfortunately, some locations in Texas struggled to fight fires during the worst of the event due to the loss of water pressure or supply.

We had 40,000 residents in Waco without electricity—the City of Waco does not have direct control or authority over electricity—so going on a citywide boil notice could have been a real public health concern. If you can’t boil water on your electric stove and can’t get to the grocery story because the roads are frozen, you’re really in trouble.

But this community came together to conserve water and check for leaks on their property, and that allowed Wacoans to have drinkable water throughout. We did have to valve off a few neighborhoods. One of our city staff members had the idea to call Coca-Cola, which has a facility here, for help. They graciously donated more than 125 pallets of Dasani water that we quickly distributed to those neighborhoods and other community members in need.

Our teams were working around the clock, sanding roads, creating warming shelters with local churches, ensuring that people knew about how they could get and give help. Coming together to serve one another was a really triumphant moment for our community.

FORD: The business community stepping up was a big piece of the solution, too, from the Coca-Cola donation to restaurants that served free meals at warming shelters. That’s what Waco is about. At our request, Waco’s top water-using businesses curtailed usage during the worst of the winter crisis. They put the community’s interest above their bottom line.

This emergency was unique because it was statewide, so we couldn’t draw resources from elsewhere. We knew the cavalry wasn’t coming. We had to work with what we had. The citizens, the business community, and the government really came together.

TEXAS CEO: Did the winter storm change how you think about preparing the city for future emergencies?

FORD: Like every thoughtful city in Texas, we are looking at what we could have done better. Our review team is looking at lessons we can learn. MEEK: Right. Our response wasn’t perfect. When you go through an emergency, you do see opportunities for improvement. How could we have communicated better internally? Could we have had different resources available ahead of time? I think our report will tell us we did an A- job and what we could have done to get an A+. We’ll keep sharpening up and be even better for the next disaster.

FORD: We partner with McLennan County to co-fund an emergency management office. That team is always sharpening our approach. This week for example, we did exercises with the Corps of Engineers. They think about things like, “What happens if there’s a dam failure upstream on the Brazos River?”

TEXAS CEO: Clearly, Waco has experienced significant growth in recent years. What factors do you think are driving that growth?

MEEK: A lot of the growth is because of our geographic location. The Texas population is growing at a rate of nearly 800 to 1,300 per day. A lot of people moving to Texas are going to the big metros, but Waco being on I-35, halfway between DFW and Austin, is attracting plenty of them. Waco is also more affordable than some larger urban areas, and there’s a rich quality of life here. It’s a very rich community in terms of its values.

It’s in the air—people in Waco know that something exciting is happening here. When you drive through downtown, you see all of the new development, entrepreneurs starting vibrant businesses, new boutiques and restaurants popping up, hotels being built, our Brazos riverfront development going vertical, and Magnolia expanding. And I think people are excited about playing a role in the direction of the culture and the economy. It’s still a small enough city that you can have a real impact.

Businesses are interested in coming to Texas as well. Texas is a pro-business state, and Waco is a pro-business city. Last year was a record-breaking economic development year for us. We have 1,500 confirmed jobs coming here, with many more in the pipeline. These are jobs that pay livable wages with 401(k)s and health benefits. It’s a real opportunity to build up our middle class.

Our City Council and staff are excited about upskilling the workforce in partnership with educational institutions, foundations, and nonprofits. We want to make sure Wacoans have the technical and soft skills they need to get these jobs. We want to build out a financially secure city. Through those jobs coming in, there’s a real opportunity to address financial security issues that have been a problem in Waco for years. I don’t know of a time in recent history when Waco has had this much opportunity for the type of economic growth that allows everyone to attain prosperity. Growing in a smart way, where everyone has the opportunity for success, will take some strategy from the city, but we’re up for the challenge.

We’re really committed to attracting and supporting entrepreneurs and small business as well. We want our economic development plan to be diversified and not too focused on one sector of the economy.

FORD: We feel like Waco is punching above its weight class. Last year, we had over $400 million in industrial investment, our best year on record. We think we’re going to do better this year. We want to drive that sector forward without leaving out small business. We made some big gains there last year by creating new programs to support small business. We funded small business COVID-19 recovery and also partnered with Startup Waco to create a Community Investment Fund to help unbanked startup businesses.

On calls with bond rating agencies, we no longer have to educate them on Waco. They know Amazon’s coming. They know Topgolf is building its new prototype here. They know about Chip and Joanna.

As far as partners to the city, I’d also highlight the work going on with the Waco Independent School District. They’re playing a key role in re-energizing the core of Waco. They’re making a sizable investment in their facilities and bringing quality programming into the district. That will help with short-term job gains and the generational change that’s going to happen down the road. Obviously, schools drive decisions about where people want to move.

We also have a great police department. This March, we had our new police chief start, Dr. Sheryl Victorian out of Houston. I think she’s going to bring a lot of new ideas to the table. Five years ago, Waco may not have had the chance to hire talent like Dr. Sheryl Victorian. But Waco’s momentum has changed. She came here to visit the Silos, so she knew about Waco before she got recruited into the role.

MEEK: Baylor has been an incredible partner to the city as well. I’m a Baylor alum for undergrad and law school, so I feel deeply connected to them. But even putting on my city hat, I can say that with Baylor we’ve realized a lot of interesting opportunities, including on economic development and programs where students can get into the community and apply their education in a lab-like setting. We’re seeing lots of Baylor students who are excited to stay and start their business here.

TEXAS CEO: How would you summarize that feeling in the air, that thing that’s drawing people to Waco?

MEEK: There’s a dignity and decency here. It’s a values-first community.

Magnolia was an incredible booster shot to Waco’s image. Fixer Upper literally showed a nice Waco family in a beautiful Waco home on TV week after week. That said, there are so many people in this community who have been part of Waco’s growth and image, whether that’s by starting up a new business, volunteering for a nonprofit, helping kick-start a farmer’s market, and so much more. Through all these efforts, Waco’s brand is going to be exposed more and more.

We’re excited about branding Waco in a more professional way and putting a marketing strategy together. I’ve joked about putting billboards up on some of the busiest highways in other cities saying, “If you lived in Waco, you’d be home by now. Average commute time, 10 minutes.” The next billboard would say, “And you could live in a house like this, with the average price per square foot of Waco homes.” But while this might be what piques some folks’ interest, the real reason people want to call Waco home is because of the values shared by the people here and the vibrant quality of life offered.

FORD: Today, lots of jobs can be done from anywhere in the state. Part of the branding effort is to communicate Waco’s value to households that have options on where to live. Over time, economic development is becoming more about attracting talent than any other consideration such as cheap land. As CEOs know, the game is all about talent now. We’re always asking the question, How do we tell people about the full-service amenities and quality of life in Waco?

MEEK: I’ll add again that Waco is a business friendly city. Lots of companies and CEOs across the state are examining expansion or relocation opportunities here. Waco is hungry for that new investment. We’re always available for conversations about how we can make this a good home for these companies. If someone is interested in exploring Waco for business expansion or relocation, reach out to us and see what incentive packages are available.

TEXAS CEO: When a region is growing this fast, it’s common for people to worry about how infrastructure will handle it. How do you think about that challenge?

FORD: We’re growing and that’s good, but it has to be smart growth. We have to have good infrastructure planning to anticipate all of it. Fortunately, city government is committed to long-term strategic planning so the infrastructure does keep up, whether it’s streets or other capital improvements.

When you’re expanding a major road or repairing a waterline, you don’t just snap your fingers and do it—it’s a two- to three-year process. We rely on our capital improvement programming to plan those things out and make sure we’ve got the budget. In any given year, we invest $40 to $50 million in water and sewer system improvements. On streets, we’re up to $28 million per year. We need to keep growing to support those improvements. If you’re not growing, you can’t invest in your infrastructure.

MEEK: A few years back, Ray Perryman, a brilliant economist here in Texas, did a study on projected population and economic growth in Waco. We were able to build out robust plans based on those projections. We also have a 25-year city planning document called the City Plan that came out five years ago. So we’re able to be data-driven and operate from a strategic mission that’s already been identified. That’s really helpful.

There are generations of leaders in Waco who have created the atmosphere for the success we’re benefiting from now, from economic development to infrastructure. We’re thankful for the strategic planning that has gone on before.

FORD: Without the long-range thinking in terms of our water systems, for example, we never would have made it through the winter storm without a boil-water notice. We have two major water plants instead of a single plant that wouldn’t have been able to push water from one end of the town to the other. Without us being ahead of the game in infrastructure, we would have been sitting without water for five to seven days.

TEXAS CEO: Bradley, how is Waco different from some of the other cities you’ve worked in?

FORD: The number-one thing that’s different in Waco is how many partners we have around the table. We have a great group of leaders in business and education and other governmental entities. Our success in this region this year is certainly shared with McLennan County, who helped us significantly on COVID-19 response and vaccine distribution as well as on economic development. In other communities, partners like the County aren’t necessarily so strong. It caught me by surprise three and a half years ago when I joined the City of Waco.

TEXAS CEO: You mentioned financial security issues and poverty. In Waco, you’ve seen more upper- and middle-class people move outside the city limits, to McGregor and Woodway and so on. What does that mean for the center of Waco?

MEEK: We are continuing to improve how we invest in the downtown core of Waco and the surrounding neighborhoods and looking at ways to incentivize commercial growth there. We want people who have lived in their neighborhoods for generations to have the opportunity to participate in revitalization even as we bring in new friends and families.

I think we have an opportunity to really see some organic prosperity here in Waco, including downtown, and to see families who traditionally live paycheck to paycheck obtain financial security. I want to be able to look every resident in Waco in the eye and say, “If you want to be in the middle class, you truly have that opportunity.”

My hope is that this community will continue to come to know one another, not live in their little corners but build robust relationships with a variety of people. We’re taking real steps toward that.

TEXAS CEO: Can you both talk about the philosophy you bring to governance and leadership?

FORD: It’s having a servant’s heart. That’s the top thing that keeps me putting crazy energy into this job. I know we’re benefiting people. That keeps me getting up in the morning.

MEEK: I would agree with that. Both of us feel called to the roles we’re in. We recognize that what we’re doing impacts the lives of people. We have an opportunity to bring jobs to this community that will hopefully break the shackles of generational poverty—and to help keep water running through people’s sinks.

One thing I fight for is awareness of my strengths and weaknesses. I hope I’ve been able to put a team around me that can accentuate the strengths and help with the weaknesses. What I love about this city team specifically is that it’s made up of smart and good people doing the best they can to make the city—and each other—better.

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