Keeping Up with the Gaineses: In Waco, Entrepreneurs Build on the Success of Magnolia Market to revitalize downtown
By Kate Groetzinger
WACO — On the first Friday of every month, downtown businesses open their doors and food trucks park along the street. Walking down historic Austin Avenue, you could almost mistake it for King Street in Charleston, S.C., minus the palm trees. Step into art gallery Cultivate712, and you could be in New York City — or Austin, at least.
Pockets of culture are popping up around Waco ever since Chip and Joanna Gaines opened Magnolia Market downtown in October 2015. Magnolia alone brings around two million visitors to Waco each year, and while some say a downtown renaissance was inevitable, everyone agrees that the tourism boom from Magnolia hastened it. In addition to more than 1,000 hotel rooms under construction downtown, local entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the renewed interest to bring new dining and cultural options to the city.
Chip and Joanna Gaines lived quietly in Waco for years before landing their own HGTV show. They owned a small home furnishings shop on Bosque Boulevard, about 10 minutes from downtown. As the couple’s home makeover show, Fixer Upper, gained popularity, people began making pilgrimages to the small shop, which was called Magnolia.
Around the same time, Austin Meek and his wife, Julia, opened a food truck — still a rarity in Waco at the time — called Pokey O’s, which sold gourmet ice cream sandwiches made with Blue Bell ice cream. They parked it outside the Gaines’s store and served tourists, who were hungry for a taste of local culture.
“In that way Chip and Joanna were directly helpful to us,” Austin Meek said. “They bring people to Waco, and we try to capture those folks. But indirectly, it’s the PR change. Waco used to be known for David Koresh, and now it’s Chip and Joanna. That makes us more marketable.”
In October 2015, the Gaines opened Magnolia Market downtown. The Silos, as it’s often called, is a collection of shops and food trucks gathered around an AstroTurf lawn in the shadow of two large grain silos. The shops, which include a bakery with lines that wrap around the block on weekends, belong to the Gaines, while the food trucks belong to local vendors. Since it opened, annual tourism in Waco has grown fivefold, from 500,000 visitors in 2014 to 2.7 million in 2018.
Retail spending in Waco has almost doubled since 2000, reaching $321 million in 2018, while Waco has added only about 19,000 new residents. All those visitors need places to eat and sleep when they come to town, and Waco isn’t able to meet that demand yet, according to Carla Pendergraft, marketing director at the Waco Tourism Bureau.
“We have about 1,100 hotel rooms under construction, but that has lagged way behind the demand,” she said. “We know that people are going to Temple and Hillsboro and even Austin to stay when they visit Magnolia.”
In the past year alone, at least five independently owned restaurants have opened in the downtown area, including Milo All Day. The 4,750-square-foot restaurant got its start as a food truck at the Silos. And while owner Corey McEntyre says he had plans to open a brick and mortar restaurant in Waco before the Gaines opened Magnolia, the tourism boom influenced the size of his restaurant and its location.
“Downtown was already being revitalized when we moved here in 2015, but the Silos has been a huge blessing,” McEntyre said. “One thing Chip and Jo have done is they got a lot of talented people in Waco to think about how we can continue to grow.”
One of the people committed to seeing Waco grow culturally is the owner of Cultivate712, Rebekah Hagman. She and her husband decided to move from Los Angeles to Waco last year.
“We were living in Southern California and wanted to move somewhere where we could actually make a difference and have a voice,” she said. “The more we researched Waco’s rich history and cultural soil, the more we were certain this was the place we were supposed to be.”
The gallery, which displays and sells local art, grew out of a plan to establish downtown Waco as a state-recognized cultural district. Art supporters in Waco created a nonprofit called Creative Waco to apply for the cultural district designation in 2015. And to promote the application, Creative Waco put together an art show by Waco artists to hang at the State Capitol.
In September 2017, the state approved Waco’s application, and the art show came to hang in a building in downtown Waco. The building, at 712 Austin Avenue, is now the property of Hagman and her husband, who attended the show and decided they wanted to buy the space and make it a permanent gallery.
Cultivate712 is a catchall for cultural events in Waco, according to Pokey O’s owner Austin Meek. The gallery hosts concerts every Wednesday night, as well as yoga, dance classes and workshops for artists during the week. On the first Friday of each month, the gallery stays open late, and Hagman provides beer and wine to visitors for free.
“One of the things I think Waco needs is more spaces for artistic programming, like live music,” Meek said. “We also need more patios, places to sit and drink outside.”
Meek has his eye on downtown street Elm Avenue, which is ripe for revitalization. The street is located in East Waco, across the Brazos River from the heart of downtown Waco and Magnolia Market. It was a bustling center of commerce in Waco prior to the 1953 tornado that ripped through Waco, causing devastation downtown that can still be felt today. Most buildings on Elm Avenue now are either used for industrial purposes or vacant. But that’s about to change.
“Elm Avenue is a terrific opportunity because a lot of the land is owned by one guy,” Meek said. “The owner has decided to give the property to people who are not professional developers but have a vision, like me.”
Meek is under contract for some property on Elm Avenue, where he says he wants to open a business that could provide some of the entertainment options the city is missing. Ultimately, he hopes the street will grow into a self-contained entertainment district, reminiscent of Rainey Street in Austin.
A mix of private and public projects are already planned for the area around Elm Avenue. The City of Waco drew down $2.4 million in state grant money in 2018 to update the street’s crumbling sidewalks and pavement, and the city is putting $700,000 in, as well. Plans to build a luxury apartment building on nearby Bridge Street have been approved by the Waco City Council, and everything from a Crossfit gym to a restaurant and food market are slated to go up on Elm Avenue in the coming year.
While the impetus for this growth may have been the tourism boom from Magnolia, Meek says local investment is needed for it to continue — and to produce more than just hotels and antique shops.
“I think it’s important to realize that Chip and Joanna are not beholden to helping anybody but themselves,” Meek said. “They’ve done more than anyone for Waco, but we have to continue building on that growth ourselves.”