This is Your Place

By Megan Willome

Get the latest scoop on Downtown Waco from Wendy Gragg

If you want to know what is happening in Downtown Waco, Wendy Gragg is the person to ask. You can go to the website she runs, downtownwacotx.com, or you might run into her somewhere downtown, where she works, lives and plays.

To paraphrase an old joke, Gragg is not a native Wacoan, but she got here as fast as she could.

After attending college at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, she moved to Killeen to work for the Killeen Daily Herald. She came to Waco in 2006 to work for the newspaper and stayed for six years.

For the last five years she has helped promote downtown, first as a content manager with Susan Cowley, who created a website called Chisholm Crossing, and now as an independent contractor with the Public Improvement District No. 1, or PID. The property owners within the district pay a small tax, and the funds are reinvested in development support and marketing for the city center of Waco.

The Downtown Waco website includes information about where to dine, shop and play, how to get around, and where to meet. Gragg also writes a blog with topics such as “The State of (downtown) Brunch, Fall 2017.”

“I just call myself a writer,” Gragg said. “At the end of the day, that sums it all up.”

She’s also an enthusiast. Gragg can talk about virtually everything happening in the heart of Waco, from this month’s Silobration to the trivia night at Barnett’s Public House to downtown’s newest arts venture, Cultivate 7twelve.

She recently poured her passion into a business venture — after years of making felt holiday ornaments celebrating the city, she and business partner Hanna Braud have created a series of Waco-centric pins.

WACOAN: I noticed the picture on the Facebook page of Downtown Waco changed since yesterday. Is that shot taken from the top of the Alico building, by the iconic sign?

Gragg: Yeah! I went up on top of the Alico. I wanted to get some pictures of downtown while it was still summer and everything looked nice, all the trees and everything. I went up there and took a bunch of pictures.

WACOAN: I’m not used to seeing the view from the Alico. I’m used to looking at the Alico.

Gragg: I saw a pic a friend took when he was up there one time. I tend to like behind-the-scenes shots and messier shots, so that view appeals to me.

I like behind-the-scenes stuff when it comes to art. When it comes to painting, I like the paint on the painter’s hands or on the floor or on their clothes after they’re done. I like those messier things. That’s where the authenticity is and the passion is. That extends to everything, including the town.

WACOAN: What is your educational and professional background?

Gragg: I have a degree in English with a minor in journalism from Winthrop University in South Carolina. I wanted to get into magazine design but took a job writing for a newspaper in South Carolina to pay the bills.

Eventually, I took a job at the Killeen paper and was education reporter there almost four years. I left that paper with every intention of moving back to the Carolinas, but then a great position opened at the Trib, and I got sucked back to Texas.

My family is from Texas, but I spent a lot of years in the Carolinas and elsewhere, so the East Coast also feels like home.

WACOAN: I go way back with downtown, to an internship in the early ’90s. What’s happening now is beyond what we hoped for. You came here in 2006, so you’ve been here long enough to watch the explosion in downtown’s growth. How has it unfolded differently than you expected?

Gragg: I moved here in 2006, and around 2007, momentum started to pick up. Little things were happening. Then we hit a lull for a little while, then it picked up again.

What I definitely maybe could have predicted was continuing to see smaller businesspeople taking a chance on coming downtown. That’s the whole reason people have been downtown at all — Jennifer Wilson [owner of Spice Village], Leah Stewart [Olive Branch], Brett Jameson and Alina Mikos [Dichotomy]. I could’ve guessed that we’d see more small businesses saying, ‘I want to do this venture, and I like the vibe downtown.’

I could not have foreseen the tourist influx. I don’t think any of us saw that before the Silos were purchased [by Magnolia]. And that has been great for Waco.

There have been growing pains too — people driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Or people stopping at train tracks when there’s no stoplight or stop sign.

WACOAN: I’d like to hear more about the history of the website. I know it began as Chisholm Crossing under Susan Cowley.

Gragg: Susan had a vision for promoting community downtown before there was community downtown. She had this idea for this website, and she wanted it to be super interactive, like an online community, even. The PID was wanting to market downtown, and she presented it to them. They weren’t sure they wanted to own it, but she said, ‘I’m gonna do it because it’s a good idea.’ She and Neil Luft built it.

It was still new and I was still at the paper, and I did some social media consulting with her. After a lot of nights talking, she said, ‘What will it take to hire you away from journalism?’ I said, ‘Very little.’ I never was sure how I was going to make the break from journalism, and she handed it to me.

Chisholm Crossing was fantastic, but it was a little bit of an uphill battle because people did not get the name. It definitely is clever because that’s where the Chisholm Trail crossed downtown, but not everybody knows that. Once they would go to the website, they were like, ‘This is great! Look at all this information!’ But getting them there was a challenge.

Susan operated it autonomously, paying me to run it and do social media for it for a few years. And then the PID was realizing that downtown is growing and we need to look at marketing, and then they paid Susan. I think they did it one year, operating Chisholm Crossing. But then they wanted the name changed to Downtown Waco. Susan had realized she felt called to step in at Talitha Koum Institute, and at that point she and [her husband,] John, were like, ‘Hey, we need to let this go.’ [Editor’s note: Susan Cowley is now the executive director at Talitha Koum.]

Fortunately, through being a reporter and work with City Center [Waco, formerly Waco Downtown Development Corporation], I gained a lot of trust from a lot of people, so I was invited too: ‘Are you interested in doing the same thing you’re doing, but we’ll build a new website and call it Downtown Waco?’ I said, ‘Yes, I enjoy what I do.’

When Four Columns Marketing created the new website, I said I wanted it to be like a museum space. I wanted it to be a lot of white space with just some pops of color. We are an exhibit space, and downtown is the art. I feel like we accomplished that.

The new site is only online since January. Man, I’m super excited about all things Downtown Waco now. We even have a little bit of swag!

WACOAN: I saw the T-shirts. That’s something we never would have imagined back in the ’90s, that people would want to buy Downtown Waco T-shirts.

Let’s define downtown. What are the boundaries you cover?

Gragg: So where I tend to cover is up to Waco Drive, and I cover to the [Brazos] River but down Elm Avenue.

And I do usually cover [McLane] Stadium as well just because they do fun events. I cover to [Interstate] 35, and I will add some Baylor stuff.

I go up to 18th Street, the Wine Shoppe. The other thing that I kind of still cover because it’s part of my heart is Cameron Park. I can’t help it — I love it so much.

WACOAN: I listened to the Downtown Depot interview for KWBU you did with Austin Meek, and in it you mentioned Downtown Waco’s pioneer spirit. It seems like everyone wants this part of the city to succeed.

Gragg: As a reporter, I used the word ‘community’ a number of times, but it didn’t mean anything to me. But in Waco, especially Downtown Waco, I was like, ‘Oh, I get it! This is what it means!’ It means believing in something greater and working for it. And the effort of getting out to see people day in and day out, checking on them — ‘Do you need anything?’

A lot of us grew up in the suburbs. You might not have had that [community] in your neighborhood. But I have found it downtown as an adult, and it’s pretty cool.

WACOAN: I don’t know if you remember this, but you submitted a Reason to Love Waco for our May 2013 Best of Waco issue, and your reason was Sense of Community. Here’s what you said: ‘In Waco community isn’t just a buzzword — it’s a way of life. Businesses, nonprofits and private citizens work together to help each other and make Waco a better place. It is so easy to get involved, lend a hand and join something bigger than yourself. From day one I have been blown away by the genuine sense of community. It has changed me since I moved here. 🙂 Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.’

Gragg: That’s so funny. I feel a little like a one-trick pony.

WACOAN: You’re just consistent. So how has that sense of community has changed you?

Gragg: I did not grow up doing any sort of service. My family, we donated things or gave money to things, but service and volunteering wasn’t part of what I did. I did a little in college to make a professor happy.

When I was at the newspaper — I don’t have kids, so I had a lot of time on my hands, and I wanted to do something. Working at the newspaper was so cerebral, working with words, so I wanted to contribute but not think that much or write. So I started going on my lunch hour and packing food bags at Caritas when I could.

Then I decided I wanted to add physical labor to what I was doing, and Waco Downtown Farmers Market had just opened and needed volunteers for setup and take down. I was like, ‘What can I carry? What can I do?’ I just kept showing up. Then I became part of the organization.

When I left the newspaper in 2012 — when I was there I was needing to stay separate and objective — I was able to get more involved. I could say, ‘Yes, absolutely. How can I help?’

I still believe that it is so easy to get involved if you are passionate about anything. You can find that outlet and show up and say, ‘I care, and I want to help,’ and people aren’t skeptical of you. They’re like, ‘Fantastic! Let’s do this.’

As far as changing me, I’ve become someone who looks for ways to help now. I’m a big proponent of volunteerism. When I have friends who are feeling unplugged or blah, I help them find ways to plug in on something. Not only are you doing something good [when you volunteer], but half the friend base I have has come from people I’ve met through the farmers market.

WACOAN: And you’re the vice president of the board?

Gragg: Yes.

WACOAN: How are things going at the new location?

Gragg: Logistically, it’s gone pretty smoothly. There’s been some hiccups on storage, but we have it now. Largely, we’ve heard good things from vendors, that they’ve gotten a lot of business, and that makes me really happy.

We understand the space with the trees and the river was arguably the most lovely farmers market in the state. Hopefully, we will resettle there after they get done with development. When there’s a little bit of the breeze, and you’ve got the courthouse in front of you and the Alico to your side, it’s not so bad.

There’s definitely people who say, ‘Ugh, I don’t like it.’ Give it a shot. We still have our great vendors, and I would follow them anywhere.

WACOAN: I haven’t been to the new site. Is it bigger?

Gragg: The walkway between booths, there’s a ton of space, which is good because people like to bring strollers and dogs. As far as space to add vendors, it’s a similar amount of space in that way. We don’t want to get too overgrown.

WACOAN: One thing I wanted to ask you about was regular downtown events that people should be aware of, and the farmers market was on that list. What else? Obviously, First Friday.

Gragg: It took a while to catch on, and businesses stuck with it. Peter Ellis stuck with it, promoting it, using his own employees to get other businesses on board, plan events and design little cards promoting First Friday. Anything good and organic takes time. It’s become a thing, and people know about it and come downtown specifically for it. Most of the stuff you can keep up with by following the Facebook page of any of these businesses.

I would say if people like jazz, Klassy Glass. If you like jazz and wine, you’ve got to be on their Facebook page. They regularly have live jazz there. Jazz is one of those things you can be young or old and enjoy.

If you like the folk, laid-back thing, Dichotomy usually has music a few times a month, usually on a Thursday or Friday.

If you like more interactive stuff, TrueLove has a Geeks Who Drink trivia night. Barnett’s has a good trivia night. My friend runs it, and she’s hysterical.

WACOAN: What’s her name?

Gragg: Melissa Green.

Then also stuff you wouldn’t think of. Elizabeth Pannabecker, the chef at Barnett’s, has been doing Friday night specialty dinners. She’s an amazing chef. They have a theme or a type of cuisine. You reserve your spot beforehand.

A lot of events I put on the Downtown Waco calendar, but I don’t put quiz nights. Any given day there’s something going on downtown. Sunday is a pretty quiet day, but a lot more places are doing brunch now. Any time you come down, there should be something going on.

WACOAN: We’re coming up on Silobration this month, October 12-14. How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t attended?

Gragg: Silobration, well, it’s packed. So if you hate crowds, it may not be for you. But if you like the idea of browsing artisan goods in a street festival setting, you should go. Magnolia brings in great vendors, and you can get some holiday shopping done.

WACOAN: In a recent blog post about the opening of Cultivate 7Twelve, a new arts space on Austin Avenue, you talked about Waco’s essence, it’s ‘Waco-ness.’ What is that, exactly?

Gragg: Oh, man! Speaking for me, what I’ve always appreciated about Waco — sometimes I make longtime Wacoans cringe when I say this — but Waco is just a little bit strange. It’s a little bit everything. It’s not Austin; it will never be Austin.

I did a blog post at the paper [for ‘Wendy Does Waco’] about Waco still apologizing for itself. But there’s also this Waco pride and this sort of scrappiness. To me, that means people who make things work, carve out a living and raise their families and do what has to be done whether people like them or not. It’s a can-do thing.

There’s also this good old-Texas feel because we have such a historic downtown. For the love of Pete, we have the mammoth site [Waco Mammoth National Monument]! We have a nursing herd of mammoths — I mean, how weird! That’s just fantastic! That’s so Waco! We’re not like everywhere else. I think that’s our strength.

I’ve been here 10 years, and I’m not a lifetime Wacoan, but I don’t want to see Waco sugarcoat or paint over their unique qualities. It’s Waco — love it! Enjoy it! Be proud of it!

WACOAN: Who are some downtown people or businesses we should be paying attention to?

Gragg: Definitely keep your eye on [Cultivate] 7twelve, the art space that Waco newcomer Rebekah Hagman is opening at 712 Austin Avenue. I’ve got my fingers crossed for that gallery/studio/retail space to succeed.

And keep your eye on Reid Guess, the pitmaster behind Guess Family Barbecue, the trailer at 324 Sixth Street. His barbecue is phenomenal — everyone wants to work with him. He’s a nice guy, and he’s got a few things up his sleeve. He’s definitely one to watch. Mark my words.

WACOAN: We’ve talked a lot about small businesses downtown. Do you think they are, by nature, more daring?

Gragg: To be a small-business person, most of the people I know are pursuing a passion. Just to open a business at all means you’re a little bit of a risk-taker. A lot of people, they’ll go all in to make it work: ‘I’m gonna take a chance on this part of town because I like it.’

For the 10-plus years I’ve been here, there’s this pioneer spirit downtown. If you have this passion and want to make something work or start an initiative or an organization, or you want to do art, if you just go out and start meeting people and talking to people and making friends, people who are downtown want to support you. It’s a community. They want to see others succeed.

I’m friends with a number of businesspeople downtown, and they regularly say, ‘I like this guy — I like what he’s doing, and I want to help him out.’ I think you don’t always see that just anywhere you want to put a business.

WACOAN: Waco has always been described as great for families. How is it great for people who aren’t in the process of raising kids — specifically looking at downtown?

Gragg: Definitely, it’s a great place to be an empty nester. I know couples who had houses in another part of Waco, and everyone’s out of the house and why do we have all this room? And they packed up and moved downtown. Maybe they’re retired and they walk to get coffee, walk their dog, walk to have a glass of wine. If you’re a retiree, come on!

Young couples — anyone who’s fired up to make their mark, whether that’s a business, whether you’re an entrepreneur. If you want to build something or grow something or become a part of something, you can do it in Waco in a way that would be much harder in Dallas or Austin. [Those cities are] great for being a consumer because everything is there for you. But if you want to build or grow or really leave an impact, it’s not that it can’t be done those other places, but it’s a lot easier in Waco.

In Waco, if you decide a thing is a thing, then it’s a thing. If you are in Waco, and you say, ‘You know what, on the third Thursday of every month I want to wear a 14th century French wig and talk about obscure French literature at Dichotomy and call it some crazy name, and I want people to notice us,’ then you can do it. Not only can you do it, but you can end up with an article about it.

WACOAN: Speaking of growing businesses, you sell Waco pins at your website Pinberry.co. How did that come about?

Gragg: I have been making Waco Christmas ornaments for four or five years now. I make them out of felt, and they’re so much fun. One day last spring I was talking to a friend, and she said, ‘Look at this pin I got in the mail — my friend in Dallas makes pins.’ Through Instagram, I knew pins were really hot right now, especially with younger people. It never occurred to me that a regular person could have a pin designed and made.

I knew immediately I wanted to do a dumpster fire. I put ‘2016’ on it, and it did really well. This year I’ll put ‘2017’ on it. I knew I wanted to make pins because I knew my designs would translate into pins. I can sketch all day and make things with my hands, but I’m not a graphic designer.

I have a friend, Hanna Braud. I think she’s been in Waco two or three years. She’s a freelance graphic designer and does really great work. And I said, ‘Do you want to make pins with me?’ And she said, ‘Yeah!’ On the Pinberry website, I referenced us both being redheads. We collaborated on five designs. We figured out the process to get them printed and made and manufactured, and now we’re selling them. They are so much fun.

And people in Waco love Waco stuff. We have a mammoth one. On it, it says Waco Original — ‘Waco OG’ is how it’s labeled. We have the Suspension Bridge, ‘Beast from the Brazos.’

WACOAN: I love that one.

Gragg: Hanna did the Hippodrome sign [‘Waco’s so Hipp’], and that’s been really popular. She designed the ‘Truth’ one, and that’s a special pin to me because I’m into genuineness and authenticity. We’re hoping they continue to sell well because we have ideas for more designs.

WACOAN: Where can people buy them?

Gragg: Right now, you can get them on our website. We may have them at some retail spots coming up but not sure yet. On First Friday, October 6, I’m doing a pin pop-up at the Hippodrome.

WACOAN: It’s finally fall. What do you look forward to downtown during the fall, specifically?

Gragg: This week, specifically, I have enjoyed walking everywhere. I like doing that anyway, but it’s been so hot, and I’m like, ‘Nope, I’m driving to the coffee shop.’ As we see mid-80s temps, Waco downtown is so pretty.

Like every other girl, I love when the pumpkin and ginger flavors start coming out, so I asked Sergio [Garcia, of Sergio’s Food Truck] the other day if he was going to make the pumpkin muffins again for Dichotomy, and he said yes. A lot of times I do a pumpkin spice watch on social media, so I’m like, ‘I found something — it’s at this place.’

Fall is sort of that lead-up, foreplay, for Christmas. It’s the anticipation and excitement, and people enjoy football or festivals. Already things are starting to pick up with businesses doing events and music lineups pick up compared to summer. There’s just more of a buzz downtown in the fall.

WACOAN: Anything else?

Gragg: The message for downtown and the voice I use for [the website] is I want it to be something that resonates with everyone. You decide what downtown is to you. While we hope it’s useful to tourists, our bread and butter is people who want to come downtown every weekend. Not just one kind of person — we want everybody to feel like it’s their place.

The more people are downtown here, the more economic development here. It wreaks nothing but good things. That’s what I try to do is make everyone feel like downtown is a place for them. I think downtown is for everyone — let me help you figure that out.

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