When I first started telling people that I was going to attend Baylor University, their response was all the same.
“Isn’t that in Waco?”
“Waco, isn’t that where…”
“Oh, well be careful!”
There is no hiding the fact that Waco has had its fair share of troubles. A quick scan though its free encyclopedia page shows paragraphs about the Waco Horror, the Waco Tornado Outbreak, the Waco Siege, and the Waco Biker Gang Brawl. It makes it sound like the Hill Valley that Marty finds himself transported to in Back to the Future II after Biff steals the sports almanac. But once you read between the lines, Waco does have a strong history and a thriving future.
Waco, the county seat of McLennan County, is the 23rd most populous city in the state. I know, not too impressive. But if you adjust for the everything-is-bigger-in-Texas inflation rate, then Waco would be the third largest city in my home state of Pennsylvania. And if you look at the actual population of the town (130,000) and the metropolitan area (around 250,000), then Waco starts sounding a little more legit.
Waco is actually the birthplace of the oldest soft drink in the country: Dr. Pepper. The company’s old factory now holds a museum based around the soft drink industry. In fact, Waco has over a dozen museums, which include the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, the Historic Waco Foundation, and the Mayborn Museum Complex. Its strong public institutions continue in the form of libraries (in the Texas Collection, the Waco Harold Tribune, and the Grand Lodge of Texas), a zoo (Cameron Park Zoo), and recently, a national park (the Waco Mammoth National Monument).
There are ample opportunities for recreation, as well. The local “playground,” Cameron Park, is one of the largest municipal parks in the state and has areas for hiking, biking, running, fishing, kayaking, disc-golfing, and picnicking. It also sports awesome views of the surrounding area and plenty of shade from the foliage for those hot Texas summers (and autumns, and winters, and springs). A path even winds along the river for easy access from downtown. Baylor’s Waco Hall is also a well-liked spot to spend free time. The building hosts the local orchestra, an enormous amount of plays and lectures, and concerts from popular musicians (recently including Yo Yo Ma!).
With the rebirth of the downtown area, choices for entertainment, dinner, and shopping have dramatically increased. As the businesses there continue to flourish, more and more of the area is undergoing renovation. In 2014, the Waco Hippodrome, a restored early twentieth-century vaudeville theatre, once again became a staple along Austin Avenue. Because of this movement, the city is starting to again become an area where people are proud to call it their home and where resident investors are capitalizing. The rising local spirit can be seen as the community gathers on Saturday mornings during the newly-established Farmer’s Market, on Friday nights during the city’s First Friday events, and, of course, on any and all days that Baylor has home football games.
Some students may scoff at Waco and say that they can’t wait to leave, but these are often the students that are most involved with the city. They live at Dichotomy, have tried every flavor of ice cream sandwich at Pokey-O’s, and play trivia at True Love. They are immersed in the growing art scene and enjoy attending all of the festivals and the aforementioned events. They are the ones who will miss it the most (or the ones that will be sucked into Waco’s better-than-it-sounds “black hole”).
Even with its recent headlines, the truth is I have really never felt uneasy in Waco. I have never been bored. I have never wished that I would have gone to graduate school in another city. I enjoy being welcomed into the town by all the passionate people that call it home. It’s just a really fun time to be in Waco right now. I can take advantage of its recent success, but also watch as it continues to grow and become better. And I can be a part of it. I know that it may sound unnerving, and maybe even a little scary, coming to Waco, but as my one friend told me: “You don’t know how good Waco is until you’re here.”
And it’s true.
So don’t think of Waco as a challenge, think of it as an opportunity. And come see us soon!
By Matthew Doyen