Keep Waco Beautiful

By Kevin Tankersley

Making the city cleaner, prettier and safer

For being a one-woman show, Ashley Millerd has some ambitious plans. She would like Waco to have as much green space as it does concrete. She wants fewer billboards. And she would like to have this accomplished in the next 10 years, thank you very much.

Millerd is the executive director — and only paid employee — of Keep Waco Beautiful, a position she’s held for a couple of years. Immediately prior, she was office manager and bookkeeper for the organization. At one point, she was the lead baker and sous-chef at The Olive Branch. Though she’s a native of Maryland, she spent her formative years in Waco and graduated from Reicher Catholic High School, McLennan Community College and finally Tarleton State University with a degree in psychology.

Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley recently sat down for a talk with Millerd in the Keep Waco Beautiful office on the second floor of Waco City Hall.

WACOAN: What enticed you to work at Keep Waco Beautiful and to take over as executive director when you were offered the job?

Millerd: I really like what I do. I feel like I make a difference around town, between the cleanups and the beautifications, adult educational classes, outreach with the students, all the recycling programs. I feel like my job matters, and I’m not just working just to work.

WACOAN: That kind of answers my next question. Everyone, I assume, has heard of Keep Waco Beautiful, as it’s been around since 1980, but what exactly does it do? There are the things you mentioned, and I know you do park cleanups.

Millerd: I have a program right now where you can adopt a park. I have 17 parks adopted and a few still left. That was my main goal, to get them all adopted by the end of 2018. Originally, they were all adopted, and then in 2010, 2011, it all just kind of went downhill. My main priority was to get everything adopted, to get recognition out there, get more involvement with the community.

We only had two scheduled cleanups for the river and the lake. Now I’m doing quarterly cleanups. I’m doing a lake cleanup, and I also do National Public Lands Day with the lake as well. I’m trying to just do more in the community. I’m also involved in the PID now, so hopefully we can partner and utilize each other’s resources that way.

WACOAN: And that is?

Millerd: The Public Improvement District. Their main focus is downtown and surrounding communities: River Square, Elm [Avenue], that sort of area.

WACOAN: You said you have a few parks that haven’t been adopted yet. Who adopts the parks?

Millerd: Civic groups, families, fraternities, sororities, Boy Scouts, the Waco Striders. All kinds. A person could just say, ‘Hey, I want to adopt this park.’ Any kind of club. It’s available to anybody.

We have a contract that we pass through the city. We just ask that you maintain it four times a year. This last year, we collected 86,000 pounds of litter and debris from all the adopted parks and all their cleanups.

We also do, twice a year when we coordinate with the Baylor Steppin’ Out program, the neighborhood associations get together and do a cleanup. We provide roll-off [dumpsters] through all the city and do a huge communitywide city cleanup. On my end, I get about 800 to 1,000 students cleaning up six or seven different areas.

Two years ago I got in a partnership with Bicycle World — it was Outdoor Waco at that time — and they provided kayaks for us. The kids can actually get in the river and have fun with [the cleanup]. That’s a big event we do in July. This year, I’m hoping to do a big, broader event with that, not just a cleanup, but a community fun time.

WACOAN: Your office is in City Hall, so is Keep Waco Beautiful part of the city?

Millerd: We are affiliated with the city, so they give me office space. We also get grants from the city to fund our programs, through Solid Waste [Services].

WACOAN: How else are you funded?

Millerd: Our basic operating funds are from Solid Waste. We also do memberships. We get donations. I apply for as many grants as I can possibly apply for. I just received a $10,000 restoration grant to restore all Lake Waco entryways due to flooding. Things with a purpose. We are doing a rainwater harvesting class in April.

WACOAN: I signed up for that yesterday.

Millerd: I saw that. All the supplies are donated. It’s a class, but we need a little bit of funds to educate people.

WACOAN: It costs $25, but I’ll be bringing home a rain barrel and a bunch of other stuff, right? I’m paying for what I get.

Millerd: Exactly. If you were to try and buy one of those barrels, it would be between $50 and $60. The kit itself — the conversion kit — is $45. We’re giving you the knowledge and the material.

WACOAN: Besides Steppin’ Out, where do you get the most involvement from the community?

Millerd: We’re in the process of restoring Miss Nellie’s Pretty Place, and last year we threw Picnic in the Park, which we’ll be doing [again] this year. We also have an annual Partners in Pride award ceremony where we give back to the community. We invite you, and we have refreshments and recognize the community that way. We do Campus of the Month, Business of the Month, and then at the year end, we’ll decide which campus gets Campus of the Year, which business gets Business of the Year.

We try to partner with other nonprofits. We have a strong relationship with [Heart of Texas] Urban Gardening Coalition, [Waco Downtown] Farmers Market. We try to help out the community as much as possible.

Engagement-wise, we have a strong following on Facebook. We do a lot of social media. I send out newsletters quarterly just to let everybody know what’s going on.

WACOAN: What do you talk to students about during your school presentations?

Millerd: Recycling. We try to teach kids at a young age because they’re more likely to do it when they get older. We do Waste in Place where we’ll set up a trash can and a recycling can and have different material [and ask students], ‘Where does this go? Where does this one go?’

We partner with the Texas Master Gardeners [Association], and we’ll teach [students] about what plants are sustainable, how to grow your own food. We try to partner with as many people as we can just to educate the city.

WACOAN: Do you have any new projects for this year?

Millerd: The rainwater harvesting. We’ve done a class on it before, but we’ve never been able to provide materials. We’re hoping to teach how to build your own compost bin in the fall. We want to educate the community about stormwater. People think, ‘Oh, that stuff goes back to the Waco water plant.’ No. It all flows back into the river. Not a whole lot of people know that.

WACOAN: You said stuff goes straight to the river and not to the treatment plant —

Millerd: Leaves. Styrofoam. Any of that stuff.

WACOAN: So if you have leaves and trash in the gutter on the street and it goes into the drain, it goes to the river and not to the treatment plant.

Millerd: Exactly. That’s something that we want to really push. We hope to do a litter index each year. We try to focus on what areas we need to clean up.

I’m huge on trying to get the alleyways clean, especially since Waco decided to stop doing dumpsters in the alley. Lots of people just do illegal dumping, and we’re trying to steer away from that. It’s hard to get volunteers out there to clean that stuff up because a lot of it is hazardous. You’ll get needles, other stuff.

We’re coming up with different solutions on how to educate and how to work with environmental deputies. We only have one or two, but they get tipped off just from citizens. How to get rid of all that junk and gunk [in alleys].

WACOAN: What’s the biggest litter problem you see?

Millerd: The biggest litter problem is roadways. I’m sick and tired of seeing Bush’s cups. I’m a huge advocate of anti-Styrofoam.

Plastic bags. At the big events, like Brazos Nights, they do the best they can, but people just seem like they don’t care. The more cleanups we do, it works out for Waco, but it’s a growing city. The more people we have, the harder it is to control it.

Right now, the city of Waco has just little green trash cans, and people from Parks and Recreation, or whoever, will come by and pick up the bags. Well, there’s no lid on the cans, so trash just blows everywhere. I’m trying to see if we can’t get trash compactors, so when it gets to a certain line, there’s a laser, and that laser will relay a text message to Parks and Rec that says, ‘Hey. Come pick me up.’

There are solutions to it. I don’t think we’re financially ready for it, economically stable for it.

It’s difficult, and I think if you get more groups like the PID and the city council and Keep Waco Beautiful and all the other environmental organizations working together as a whole, I think engagement will work out and eventually get there.

WACOAN: Other environmental organizations. Who all does that include?

Millerd: Texas Master Gardeners. Texas Master Naturalists. We do a lot of work with Waco Solid Waste. The PID, of course. There’s Sustainable Waco. There are all kinds of groups we work with.

I’m also reaching out to students. We have a sustainability group at MCC, a sustainability group out at Baylor, and I’m working on a relationship with TSTC. What is really cool about Waco is that we have three major, yet different, colleges. You can get all kinds of volunteers. And a lot of them are staying now [in Waco after graduation]. If you reach out to the youth, it’ll help in the long run.

WACOAN: I know that Keep Waco Beautiful is part of Keep Texas Beautiful —

Millerd: Yes, we’re affiliated with Keep Texas Beautiful.

WACOAN: And Keep America Beautiful.

Millerd: And Keep America Beautiful.

WACOAN: Are there any statewide or nationwide events that happen here and are part of a bigger statewide or nationwide initiative?

Millerd: Yes. So we do the Don’t mess with Texas Trash-Off in July. That was one of the river cleanups. We partnered with Don’t mess with Texas.

We do the Great American Cleanup, and that’s in the fall. That’s when we do the whole citywide [cleanup].

And Keep Texas Waterways Clean. We focused on Waco Creek this year. Any smaller creeks, too, that don’t get a lot of foot traffic, that’s one of the programs we work with.

Keep America Beautiful put in Waste in Place, so that’s one of their programs that we adopted.

There are a lot of programs that we dropped because they were so outdated. We learn more and more each time we go to a conference. They’re really pushing the litter thing. And the graffiti. The city of Waco takes care of a lot of that.

WACOAN: How can people get involved with Keep Waco Beautiful?

Millerd: I’m at [the Waco Downtown Farmers Market] at least once a month. Stop by our booth, and I’ll get your email. I’m trying to go straight green now. I’m avoiding mail-outs. You’ll get everything that we do on a regular basis. If you want to volunteer or if you need volunteer hours, you call me up and say, ‘Hey. I need volunteer hours.’ I’ll give you something to do.

WACOAN: If someone calls and wants to volunteer or needs the volunteer hours, what might that person be doing?

Millerd: Well, it depends on the time of year. We shy away from too many cleanups in December and January just because it’s so cold. We have people serving all the time. We had a group call and say, ‘This looks terrible.’ I think it was Proctor Springs. They went and cleaned it up. We work with PID a lot.

During the springtime with all the birds, we need to wash off all the streets. That’s one thing that we do. We’re really on a clean initiative. And we do a lot of beautifications, too. Now that’s a little more expensive.

Sometime in April, we’ll be out at Lake Waco, and we’re going to completely wipe out the entryway to Speegleville Park. We’ll plant all native plants, low-maintenance. I tried to put out dates well in advance for people to sign up for these things.

We did a beautification project at Lake Shore Drive and [MLK Jr Boulevard]. That always needs pruning. [Texas Department of Transportation] just gave that back to us. That was one of our Governor’s Community Achievement Award grants that we won. It was $290,000 combined from 2009 and 2012. It’s a huge process to get through that.

We had to do a six-page summarization about the city as whole. I contact everybody that I can possibly contact for numbers, whether it’s about litter control or illegal dumping or beautification or education. Anybody that could give me facts. You can only win every few years, and we’re eligible to win this year. I turned that in last week.

WACOAN: The project at Lake Shore and MLK. How did that come to be?

Millerd: OK. Funny story. We wanted to do a ‘Welcome to Waco’ sign. First we had to deal with TxDOT. Then we had to go through the federal government. You have to go through so many different processes.

The only way they would let us put any kind of lettering on it was if it matched the other one on I-35. That says, ‘Waco. Founded [1849].’ I had to jump through hoops just to get our logo on it. All of our projects around town, people don’t know [they’re ours] because there’s no recognition there.

We lit the Suspension Bridge. We built Indian Spring Park. We built Heritage Square. We opened Miss Nellie’s Pretty Place. We planted trees all down LaSalle [Avenue]. We do a lot of projects, but we don’t get any recognition for it. People say, ‘What does Keep Waco Beautiful do?’

WACOAN: How did you choose the location at Lake Shore and MLK?

Millerd: It had to be a state right-of-way. And with more tourists flying into Waco, it was there by the airport. We didn’t particularly want to put it on that corner. We wanted to put it on the other side, but there was some sinkhole issues, so we didn’t really have a choice.

WACOAN: You talked about beautification projects and Miss Nellie’s Pretty Place —

Millerd: We do Arbor Day every year. Plant a tree. Last year, we donated a tree to Talitha Koum [Institute] and educated some of the younger kids there [about] how to plant things and water and take care of them. We gave them some books donated by Scholastic.

We planted flowers at Parkdale Elementary. We got kids out there to help do that. All native plants. We did Sally’s House, which is Salvation Army’s shelter for women.

We’re still in the process of rejuvenating Miss Nellie’s Pretty Place. We’re raising funds. It’s going to be a $10,000 project, and that’s just on one side of the fence. We reseeded the wild flowers because they had been mowed over, and that was a huge deal to Mr. Bob Poage, who donated the $100,000 to that project. His mom was actually Nellie, and that’s how the park was named.

We’ve had some ideas to beautify around the river, but since the riverfront is changing, we’re going to hold off on that. Once we get all that built up, we’ll adjust that again. There were ideas to do The Circle, but that’s [maintained by] TxDOT. It’s hard to, not necessarily find what needs to be beautified but who controls what.

We try to focus on a lot of community gardens and help out any way we can there, whether it’s funding or tools. We beautified the Hike and Bike [Trail] by the dam. Planted all native plants there. We do a recycling event each year, the Chipping of the Green. Bring your Christmas tree in, and we’ll chip it for you and give you back a bag of mulch.

I’m trying to expand beautification, but it’s a little more pricey with the budget that we have. It requires more fundraising that anything.

WACOAN: When you do the beautification projects — Speegleville Park, Miss Nellie’s Pretty Place — you go in and do your beautification thing. Then who is responsible for the upkeep?

Millerd: In the past, it was an unspoken rule that if we did it in parks, then Parks and Rec would take over. The reason we’re having to rejuvenate Miss Nellie’s Pretty Place is there were no set guidelines. There was no contract. While we’re in the process of doing that, legal is coming up with a contract. It’s all in open records. What money is being spent where.

The beautification project on MLK, that was all TxDOT and they gave it back to us, as of November, and Parks and Rec took it over. However, they have limited manpower, so the beautification committee is working with the Texas Master Gardeners, and we’re going to go out there and prune some of the bushes this month.

WACOAN: What can folks do to keep their own spaces beautiful?

Millerd: We’ve got lots of educational material. How to save money. How to treat your yard. All kinds of stuff.

WACOAN: How can people get this material?

Millerd: I’m at the farmers market. I’m here [in the office] five days a week. People can call. They can look it up on our website, which we’re in the process of revamping. It hasn’t been touched in a year.

WACOAN: Why is an organization like Keep Waco Beautiful important to the community?

Millerd: I think the more community engagement that Waco has, we can be active. Our volunteer base is huge, so we try to help as many organizations as we can.

WACOAN: In ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell, he talks about how clean and pretty environments are likely to have less crime because of a subconscious desire to keep things pretty. Vandalized and dirty places had more crime; criminals weren’t subconsciously worried about messing anything up. Clean up areas, and the crime goes down. Have you seen that in action?

Millerd: Yes, 100 percent. We were just talking about this issue in a PID meeting. Once you have a pretty spot, then they want to put a playground down. Once you put a playground down, then people realize, ‘Oh, kids are here.’ And once you have people there, you’ll develop businesses. And once you get businesses, you’ll develop all kinds of stuff. It does. It starts with making something pretty, and everything will grow from there.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know about what Keep Waco Beautiful does?

Millerd: We’ll be out at the zoo on Earth Day, April 22. We usually do some sort of recycled material [project] the kids can do. Last year, we cut up old t-shirts, and they made bracelets and necklaces. The year before that, we painted planters. The year before that, we planted seeds in planters. We try to give out bluebonnet seeds, get the native wildflowers going again.

One of my goals, eventually in a 10-year span, is to have equal green space to concrete. We don’t have any rain gardens here. We don’t have any pocket gardens here.

WACOAN: What are pocket gardens?

Millerd: If you have two buildings that are, say, 10 or 15 feet apart, you could plant your own little herb garden. They’re just tiny gardens.

WACOAN: And what’s a rain garden?

Millerd: That’s where you collect rain. There’s educational material out there for that, and it will be on the website as well. My main goal is to get Waco Scenic City certified. A lot of people don’t know about that. That’s fewer billboards. Equal green space to concrete. More playground areas. I think there are only 23 cities in Texas that are certified. There’s a huge list of ordinances that would have to be changed, so that’s going to take some time for the city to actually comply with that.

WACOAN: That’s pretty ambitious for an organization that has one paid employee.

Millerd: Right. That’s what I’m saying. It’s the long run. You put ideas [out there] and if people like them, then they’ll work together.

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