Historic restoration in downtown Waco.

Historic restoration in downtown Waco.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to speak in Waco, Texas. I'd never been there and was pleasantly surprised with what I encountered. Not only do they have some really great things happening in their downtown, they have fantastic leadership from Chris McGowan at the Greater Waco Chamber, among others. 

I also had a chance to meet with city council members. I was impressed with their tough questions and their ability to understand the hard choices they faced. I delivered a difficult message, but they were quite earnest and thoughtful in their response.

All of which I am not at all surprised to see what has come next. From the Waco Tribune: 'City Plan' draft urges strong tactics to manage growth. From the article:

City leaders have said for years that they want to repopulate the inner city and rein in the costs of running pipes and streets to “sprawl” development on the edges of town.

Now comes a proposed new comprehensive plan with strong measures aimed at doing just that, and developers are nervous.

Waco City Council on Tuesday will take its first look at the 25-year “City Plan” that will guide decisions on everything from economic development to environment to infrastructure and land use.

The centerpiece is the “growth management” section favoring close-in growth and making outer-ring growth pay for itself through new development fees.

And there's the key: Let's do the math and ensure that our new growth does not result in huge financial burdens (along with large tax increases and deep cuts in services) for our existing residents and businesses. Waco officials have recognized that this has been the case for many decades as they've chased growth -- like most other American cities -- using the Ponzi scheme of municipal finance. This is a bold realization and they should be applauded for making a shift.

Mayor Malcolm Duncan, Jr. of Waco, TX.

Mayor Malcolm Duncan, Jr. of Waco, TX.

Here's how the mayor described it using language right out the Curbside Chat, yet localized to his reality:

Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said the current system forces existing taxpayers and utility customers to subsidize the cost of serving subdivisions like Park Meadows.

“Is it fair to continue to raise property taxes to do that, or does it need to be borne by people who move into those new subdivisions?” he said.

Of course, not everyone is excited about the shift. While the home builders and others that live off of these subsidies are likely to ultimately resist these changes, I appreciate the tone thus far which signals a willingness to at least acknowledge the problem. From the article:

Developers are watching the discussion closely, said Kay Vinzant, executive director of the Heart of Texas Builders Association, who has been attending Plan Commission discussions of the plan.

“I can only tell you there are huge concerns among people who are going to come in and spend their money developing,” she said. “If you’re going to continue to have growth in Waco, you’ve got to know your costs. We’re not unhappy. We just don’t have enough information.”

Still, one of the more exciting things about Waco is the new breed of developer that has identified ways to make really good money developing in the downtown and immediately surrounding neighborhoods, places that produce profits for the investor along with prosperity for the community.

Waco has a long ways to go, but this is an important step in the direction of financial responsibility. It is also an early indication that Waco is going to be a thought leader in the conversations communities all over the country need to be having.

Keep going, Waco.