Waco Tribune-Herald: Reflections on growing a city: Q&A with Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce President Jim Vaughan

Aug. 21, 2012

Reprinted by permission of the Waco-Tribune Herald

Sunday August 19, 2012

Jim Vaughan, 68, president of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce the past eight years, concludes his tenure at month's end. In an interview with the Tribune-Herald conducted at the chamber's distinctive office building downtown, he discussed downtown growth and riverfront development; local business executives who have impressed him with their civic leadership; his first mixed impressions of Waco; cities that Wacoans should view as ideal models; and a humorous moment he shared with local philanthropist and humanitarian Bernard Rapoport, who died this year.

Q What things are drawing your attention as you finish up?

A Well, I'm not taking on any big, big projects. (Laughter.) I'm trying to wrap up the work I can do on the Momentum Campaign, which is our super fund for economic and community development. We're at about $3.2 million. With others making calls on that as well, we're trying to tighten that up going forward.

Q Economic signs seem mixed. This week we saw a report suggesting consumerism is up, yet other signs suggest the recession is getting ready to kick in again. Are you sensing increasing anxiety as you make calls?

A I don't sense that. That doesn't mean that everybody is quick to part with their funds. When we raised $7.4 million to build this building and implement our plan, that was in the 2006-07 time frame. We were fortunate we did it then and not two years ago. In some ways, it's not any different now than it was back in what we call the good days. There are some businesses doing very well and some not so well, so I think there's still financial support for the chamber and the community. People are always selective in how they invest in things. The Baylor Stadium project is an example of that. There are some big asks out there now that people are nonetheless working through. That's the way it always is.

Q When you look at your career in Waco, what would you consider your highlights and how difficult was it to bring them to fruition?

A I put highlights in two categories. One is kind of the "built" stuff like this chamber building or the Baylor stadium recently announced or other new buildings at Baylor University or the bond issues passed by voters to benefit the Waco Independent School District, McLennan Community College and the city -- those efforts that resulted in something getting built. They're something you can drive by and say, "That happened." I am very proud of how the business community responded with this building, which is a symbol of local business leadership's commitment to the future. This will be here for a long time and it makes representing the chamber and doing the work of the chamber a lot easier because there's something that people can see that they can relate to the chamber. It's a source of pride. The other category relates to attitudes and feelings about the community. I'm talking about things like for this chamber building to be a green building or for us to say we're going to have a billion-dollar decade downtown. It's us saying, "Let's develop a plan for the greater Waco downtown area and capture half of the county's population and job growth over the next 40 years." Wow. Nobody's ever done anything like that. No city would ever set a goal like that. But we did. Now, has everybody embraced it? Well, I think we've lost a little momentum.

Q Is it the economy?

A Probably. But the idea was something that came out of the process of getting people's input. People started to say, "Wow -- that could really be something." You know, for too long Waco has settled for the old historic pattern. The acceptance has been that Waco is a great place but prides itself in that it never exactly spikes when the economy is booming and it never really crashes when the economy sinks. But if I'm investing, I'd like to get a little more on the up side and certainly don't want to tank in the down times. Yet so many times we've sort of accepted that we're not going to ever--

Q Amount to anything?

A Those are your words. I'm not saying it quite like that. But sometimes we say, "Good enough is good enough." Well, I don't think good enough is good enough. I think the things we have advocated have stretched people a bit. That's what the chamber ought to do. I think the chamber ought to be out front, pushing the envelope.

Q The chamber building is a trend-setter in energy efficiency. What's been the biggest surprise about having the first green chamber building in the United States -- something you didn't expect?

A Nothing comes as a surprise. What makes me feel good is the fact there are so many other green, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified buildings that have come along since we did our building. Baylor has done three or four, McLennan Community College has done three, I think, including one that could achieve the Platinum level, which is really outstanding. Caterpillar and Wells Fargo have done this. So the idea this is something they do only in Austin or in California or New York and that's not going to happen in Waco, that it's not important in Waco -- well, it is important. To me, the thing that I feel good about is that it wasn't the Austin chamber or Albuquerque chamber or some chamber in California that did this, it's the Waco chamber. I wanted this to be something that says, "Well, we don't want to follow behind everybody else, we want to be out front on things." Of course, I didn't realize how hard it would be to keep a green roof doing well.

Q You and I talked about that some months ago. How is all the vegetation up there?

A Well, there are still some plants but most of them died last summer and we're in the process of replanting. But part of that is the heat we had last year. I just wouldn't water it. I said that was not the deal. We were going to plant that with drought-tolerant plants. Well, I wasn't counting on a hundred days of hundred-degree temperatures or whatever it was. But it's also a living laboratory, so we'll find out what really works up there.

Q Over your tenure, you've talked about cities we might learn from. At this critical juncture, rather than when you started or in the middle of your tenure, what's a good city for us to keep an eye on?

A Well, I think the cities we have visited are the best models for us. The first city we visited was Fort Worth. I've always said that when Waco as a city grows up, it'll be like Fort Worth. I think Fort Worth is just a great city. It just feels good. It has a good downtown, it has a good diverse economy, it has business and industrial areas like Alliance, it has a nice urban feel to it. I just think it's a great city.

Q You don't think it gets kind of mixed up with Dallas?

A Oh, I think it's very different. You know, they use the theme of cowboys and culture. They didn't hide their historic stockyards. They're proud of that, but they also have some of the world's great museums. I mean, Dallas has great museums, too, but, well, Dallas is interesting, but to me Dallas is Dallas and Fort Worth is Fort Worth. You know, if it were not next to Dallas, it would be first in people's minds, but I guess because of the airport's name, Dallas-Fort Worth, Fort Worth is seen by some as the second city in the area. Oklahoma City is another great city. Chattanooga -- we're taking a group to Chattanooga. I served the chamber there for 11 years. It's a great city and has made a huge transition. Greenville, S.C., we went to. If you go to Greenville -- all these other cities are bigger than Waco but Greenville is actually smaller than Waco.

Q But what about those towns do we need to cultivate locally?

A Part of it is about raising your sights. If you go to Chattanooga and visit the Hunter Museum of American Art, you're seeing a great art museum in a mid-sized city. You go to the Tennessee Aquarium and you see a world-class facility. I'm not saying we need to build an aquarium or art museum -- we don't need to duplicate what these cities did -- but you need to see how they found a way to do those things. They had the confidence to do that. We could too.

The development along our river is the thing everyone wants to see. Everybody's concept is a little different. Some people want to see hotels and restaurants, others want to see open spaces and parks. Well, guess what? It's big enough for all that. Look at Greenville where 40 years ago they actually built an overpass over a beautiful waterfall that became the center of the city. They didn't care enough about the river or the waterfall. They put a bridge right over it. In fact, one of the piers went right down into the falls. Well, guess what? They ripped the road out about six or eight years ago and they created a magnificent urban park and built a world-class pedestrian bridge to open all of that area up. Now, that's what I think you learn when you go to other cities. You learn they made mistakes too and they had problems and yet they found ways to overcome them to become great cities.

Q When you first laid eyes on Waco, what thoughts went through your mind?

A I looked out and all I saw was parking lots, asphalt lots, including this very site. It had been a parking lot for 50 years. And I thought, "Oh, this is going to be tough." Of course, I didn't know about the tornado that wiped us out in 1953. On the other hand, OK, so we had that. Let's rebuild. But I remember driving in and seeing the ALICO building and some other buildings and thinking, "Oh, this is going to be a nicely built city, it's going to be really cool." And then I get in here and see parking lots and boarded-up stores. It's not that way now. Now I see progress but there's still empty blocks near this chamber. There's still a lot of asphalt parking lots. My friend William McDonough, who was dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, always said: "How long does it take to build a city? The answer is it takes forever." Well, it's going to take forever to build this city. But we don't have to wait forever to get started.

Q Did our town pretty much match the descriptions offered by some of our civic leaders?

A When I met with the search committee -- Jim Haller, Kent Keahey, Bob Davis, David Lacy, Louis Englander, Johnny Mankin -- I like those people and they like this town and they like the chamber and I like them. Now, the way I learned about Waco is I spent the first couple of months out visiting people. I developed a questionnaire and I'd ask people the same questions over and over about their vision for the community and what things they thought held us back and who were the people who can make a difference. The last question I asked was: "What advice do you have for me?" I always remember B Rapoport said to me: "You say you're the president of the chamber?" And I said, "Yes sir." And he jokingly said, "Well, if I were you, I'd get a new job!"

Q Are you still as optimistic about East Waco as you are about the rest of downtown? I was talking with Robyn Driskell of Baylor University's Center for Community Research and Development the other day about this survey that says people in East Waco feel less safe at night now than they did two years ago. That defies the trend in every other area of our city. She suggests this may be due to the fact commerce hasn't exactly taken root in East Waco to the degree it has elsewhere.

A I absolutely think it's going to come. Things like the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative and Austin Avenue will offer a linkage to Elm Avenue. You can't really force things to happen. In any city, there are areas that develop sooner than others. In terms of private-sector investment, dollars are invested where the returns will be greatest. Some areas lead, others follow.

Q Is there a chamber chairman who you most clicked with?

A No. That's like picking your children -- which is your favorite child? But when Bob Davis was board chair he secured this site from the city and chaired the building committee and got a guy like Tom Salome to lead the fundraising campaign. So I feel like Bob was one of the key leaders that I had. My first chair, Jim Haller, is just an amazing guy. He knows everybody and he's a huge cheerleader for this community. He's a great advocate for organizations throughout, including his bank. Not only did he serve as chair when I came but he came back two years ago and chaired our total resource campaign. Kent Keahey is a great leader; Rick Brophy when we opened this building. Stewart Kelly this year -- when I announced that I was leaving, that put forward a challenge that he didn't expect, but he's been great. I could go on -- Roland Goertz, David Lacy, Terry Stevens, Don Moes -- all those guys have been outstanding. Somebody sent me something that said that, yes, I had done some great things but that it was really a testimony to the community that people like these individuals were so open to new ideas.

Q When someone comes into town and you want to impress them -- not a business executive but some friend you haven't seen in a long time -- where do you take them?

A The drive along MLK and Lake Brazos Parkway along the river is one of the nicest drives in town. I also drive along the lake because people don't think of lakes like that in Waco or even Texas. Baylor is a great place to show people -- the buildings, the campus. I think among the things that make this a special place is the university. I never thought of this as a college town like College Station, but the influence of the university in so many ways makes this a much better place in our lives. And, of course, you have to go to George's.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.