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Waco’s wake-up call

Photo by David Kozlowski, Dallas Photoworks

Two projects on the Brazos River — the reimagining of a 1970s-era convention center and the construction of a new football stadium for Baylor University — are among the signs: Waco, Texas, is making its move.

Thousands of cars whip past Waco each day, tooling up Interstate 35 to Dallas and down the same highway to Austin, Texas. About 100 miles from either city, Waco could have been the overlooked middle child.

But the city has refused to accept that role. Waco has won over a significant fan base, supporters beyond the thousands who cheer its Baylor University sports teams. Among the best examples are the associations, churches and other organizations that return to Waco for meetings and conferences year after year, decade after decade.

Loyal clients kept coming
Those loyalists were much appreciated in the three years leading up to July 2012. That was when the city finally got to unveil and celebrate the transformation of the Waco Convention Center.

Near the riverfront, the old center was a bit of an ugly duckling, a nondescript box topped with a mint-green mansard roof. Some $17 million turned it into a glowing, flowing glass-and-stone Cinderella.

The work was done as the convention center remained open, and although it wasn’t always easy or fun, convention clients stuck with Waco.

“Most of our clients, including the very large conventions, stayed with us,” said Carla Pendergraft, director of sales and Internet development for Waco and the Heart of Texas. “They would change their schedule or their trade show, or reformulate their convention to stay with us.”
Among the most loyal was the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association (THSBCA), which has met in Waco for 42 straight years.

“When that was going on, it was a nightmare,” said Rex Sanders, THSBCA executive director. “But by the same token, the staff at the convention center did everything they could to make it work for us.”

Imaginative architects brought the center out of its shell.

“It was a big, old box, and no one was ever sure what was going on inside,” said Liz Taylor, executive director of Waco and the Heart of Texas. “The architect got excited about opening up the building so those outside could see what was going on inside.”

Adding curves and windows made a huge difference, said Pendergraft.

“A curved facade to the front gave it a completely different feeling and made it more appealing to the eye. In some areas, there are floor-to-ceiling windows, and so when you drive by at night, it is all aglow.”

Waco reflected in redsign
The center’s riverside setting and the city’s history also inspired the redesign.

The wire cables of the Waco Suspension Bridge, across the street from the center, are echoed in the convention center. Local limestone and brick that is the same pale shade as that seen throughout the city — originally made from the river’s mud — add dimension to the building’s exterior.

Among the most popular changes is the addition of a wall of glass and a narrow balcony on the river side of the 14,100-square-foot ballroom. Adding the balcony meant losing about 500 square feet of indoor space, but the wall of glass makes the room feel larger.

“Planners say, ‘Oh, it is so much bigger than it was before,’” said Taylor. “I don’t think there is a more beautiful ballroom in Waco, and I’m not sure that there is a more beautiful one in Texas.”

Improvements went far beyond cosmetic changes. Additional entrances were built, and 21,000 square feet of new space was added by repurposing storage and other spaces. The new space was used to create more breakout spaces, corridors and prefunction areas.