More Than Downtown

By Kevin Tankersley

Q&A with Andrea Barefield of Main Street Waco

Andrea Barefield’s love for the city of Waco runs deep. After college at Sam Houston State University, she lived in Austin for a while and was then in Houston for 14 years. Even after all that time away, her hometown was always dear to her.

Barefield’s mom, Dr. Mae Jackson, helped instill that love for Waco. Jackson was sworn in as Waco mayor — the first black female to hold that office — on May 24, 2004. She died suddenly on February 11, 2005. The Dr. Mae Jackson Development Center in downtown Waco bears her name.

Barefield graduated from Connally High School before majoring in public relations at Sam Houston. She met her husband, Elijah, in college. He teaches seventh grade math at Indian Spring Middle School. They have two sons: Jaxon and Elijah Drew. “We call him Drew,” Barefield said.

In Houston, Barefield worked for The Ensemble Theatre, the oldest and largest historically African-American theater in the Southwest. Then for five years she owned her own performing arts space, a venue that was home to the Debbie Allen Dance Institute.

Barefield and her family moved to Waco in August 2015. The following month she became manager of Main Street Waco. Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley spoke with Barefield recently at the offices of City Center Waco, the umbrella organization under which Main Street Waco operates.

WACOAN: What brought you back to Waco?

Barefield: We had a home here. My husband said, ‘Why are we paying for a house when we have one?’ So we moved here. He’s a teacher, so it wasn’t like there was a shortage of employment for him.

WACOAN: How long have you been with Main Street Waco?

Barefield: Since September.

WACOAN: I was under the wrong — obviously wrong — impression that the Texas Main Street program was mainly for smaller towns.

Barefield: Waco got Main Street status in 2014. We’re really excited. A few other cities in the state are larger urban cities. Recently, Corpus Christi just became a Main Street [city], and it has 300,000 people.

WACOAN: What does it take for a city to attain Main Street status?

Barefield: There’s an application process. [It looks at] the historical structures that are in your city and the amount of actual merchants in the district that is designated as downtown. It focuses on historic preservation [according to the guidelines of] the Texas Historical Commission, with interest in redeveloping the area that was once the city’s heartbeat.

WACOAN: If I understand it, your efforts are going toward bringing the development going on in downtown across the Brazos River to East Waco, where your office is located. Is that right?

Barefield: It’s both. Our district includes the Elm Avenue business district and downtown.

WACOAN: What are your goals for Main Street Waco?

Barefield: We have some amazing spaces in downtown, especially in the Elm district, that need people. I think that more people are moving into the city center, and we’ve got to have things that keep people in the city center. Ways to be entertained. Places to live. Businesses that you utilize and frequent regularly — the dry cleaner, the drugstore. All things that you need to live, to be available in downtown. We’re hoping to see more independently owned businesses, things that make this city fascinating.

WACOAN: The office that Main Street is under recently had a name change, from Waco Downtown Development Corp. to City Center Waco. What do you do as Main Street manager?

Barefield: I assist in the promotion of revitalizing downtown through what is essentially the Main Street four-point approach. It’s design, organization, promotion and economic vitality. What that means: I go out to the businesses to keep a relationship with them, to make sure that all of the things they need to do business are happening for them.

One of the things the [Public Improvement District, PID,] does is provide security for the area. We provide graffiti removal. Those are infrastructure things. Are you having any issues with the safety in your area? Because those types of things will hinder someone going to a business. Is it clean and safe? We assist in marketing and promotional tools. If we’re having events, we make sure that they know and can participate. We encourage them to have events as a community, and we plan events as a community so the entire district can work together to sell the district. At the end of the day we all have the same goal, to see dollars come and stay and be spent in the downtown area.

WACOAN: So Main Street and City Center Waco aren’t strictly focusing on the Elm Avenue district and East Waco but also on downtown?

Barefield: We do both. We make it no secret that we want to see economic vitality in this district, in the Elm Avenue district.

And we were so excited when Miss [Iva] Smith re-opened the Jockey Club right next door. That was the historic barbershop. I think they closed in 2012, but it had been open for over 90 years. When I got back here, I [thought], ‘What do you mean the Jockey Club is closed? Everybody got their hair cut at the Jockey Club.’ [Smith] said to me, ‘I want to see activity on the street.’ She and her nephew got in and repainted everything themselves: ‘We’re going to get these back open,’ [she said]. I love it. I said, ‘Let me help you. We’ve got these grants you’re eligible for.’

WACOAN: Is the Jockey Club anything like the movie ‘Barbershop’?

Barefield: [Laughs.] Probably. I know it was back in the day.

We assist in facilitating facade improvement grants for the merchants in this district. If you want to spruce up the outside of your business to make it more vibrant and inviting, we do that. Marilyn [Banks] from Marilyn’s Gift Gallery just redid all of the windows in her strip center with a facade improvement grant to make it more inviting and bring more people in.

We’re doing all we can for the area. Downtown, once you cross the river, there’s some major projects going on over there. We offer support for them as well. It’s incredibly important for us to see revitalization of the Elm Avenue district.

WACOAN: What would you like to see in the Elm Avenue district?

Barefield: I want to see culture. I want to see entertainment. I want to see restaurants that are open past lunch. People live and work in this area, and if they want to go to dinner, [I want to see places where] they can go to dinner. If they want to go hear spoken word or some live music, then that would happen. If you want to grab a glass of wine or a beer, then that should happen.

If you frequent other cities, like Deep Ellum in Dallas or Montrose or The Heights in Houston, then that is what this kind of feels like. Just the nature of the buildings. The layout of the street. It’s begging for me to walk up and down it and eat and meander and look in windows. It’s just begging for it to happen. We’re really hopeful that it will happen.

WACOAN: Well, you have Lula Jane’s at one end of Elm and a couple of barbecue places at the other —

Barefield: There’s more to life than cookies and barbecue. But we’re hoping that happens soon. We’re on a really progressive path.

Did you come out to Art on Elm this weekend?

WACOAN: Yes. Every year.

Barefield: This was my first year. So everybody [asked], ‘How was it compared to last year?’ I didn’t have any comparison, but I thought it was great.

What I want to see next year is, hopefully, there will be more businesses on the street so when you bring in 4,000 or 5,000 people, the businesses benefit from that. That’s the thing that should happen in vital downtown districts.

Events are a lot of work. They’re a lot of work, but they can be extremely beneficial if done well. Next year when Art on Elm rolls around and they come all the way down here, who knows? The barbershop — and Miss Smith is opening a beauty shop right next door — might get [customers]: ‘Well, I’m here. Why don’t I get a haircut?’ Or if there are restaurants: ‘Let’s get something to eat.’ Those things will happen, and more people will frequent the businesses that they see.

WACOAN: What kind of influence has Nancy Grayson had on Elm? She started Rapoport Academy at one end and now owns Lula Jane’s at the other.

Barefield: She believes in this community and is putting her money where her mouth is to see it continue to thrive. I think it’s great.

WACOAN: Back to revitalization, what would you like to see in the bail bonds building across the street? That’s a cool building.

Barefield: It’s a very cool building. There is a woman who has a deli that would be really interesting over there.

WACOAN: A deli wouldn’t compete with the bakery or the barbecue places already here.

Barefield: Not at all. Miss Smith said, ‘I don’t want to sell it.’ I told her, ‘You don’t have to sell it. Land is one of things they’re not making any more of.’

WACOAN: What is your impression of downtown since you moved back to Waco?

Barefield: Oh, I think it’s amazing. When I was here [previously], no one lived here. No one lived in downtown. There was the courthouse. There were some offices, mostly law offices. At 5 o’clock, it was a ghost town.

I think it’s awesome that you can go and frequent a wine shop or have some dinner at Half-Time [Restaurant & Bar] or go to Jake’s [Texas Tea House]. See a first-run movie [at the Waco Hippodrome] in the downtown area. Do yoga. Take a CrossFit class.

WACOAN: There are some amazing spaces in downtown and the Elm district that need to be filled. How does Main Street go about helping to fill those spaces?

Barefield: We have wonderful partnerships. My executive director [Megan Henderson] has been in economic development for a long time. Businesses who are looking to find space reach out to our office.

I had a man come in today. He’s a Baylor graduate, and they live in South Texas. His wife has a specialty store. She does fruitcakes and breads and things. They want to get a business on Elm.

A lot of people we’re seeing right now have a connection or history with Waco in some way, and they want to do business here because of the growth and development that’s happening and that they believe will continue to happen. We have relationships with all the chambers [of commerce]. People come to us.

WACOAN: I grew up in Waco, and for a long time there was the perception that the Elm district wasn’t safe. For a Wacoan story a few years ago, I did an overnight ride-along with a Waco police officer whose beat included Elm. We drove up and down the street several times, and it appeared to be perfectly safe. How do you go about getting rid of the perception that the district isn’t safe?

Barefield: We just have to keep bringing awareness about it and keep encouraging people and highlighting the businesses here. You have to have people involved in it to tell the story.

We’re trying to change the images of our businesses. We’re trying to encourage our businesses that are open to take the bars off [their windows]. That tells a story. We just renovated this building [at 801 Elm]. There are no bars on any of [the windows] because there’s no need. I grew up here. I’m almost 40 years old, and I don’t think there’s much danger here. But we have to keep telling that story.

You know that Cameron Park had a bad rap for years: ‘You don’t go in Cameron Park.’ It was so unsafe. [The city] came in and did a great marketing program, and [now] anybody can run in Cameron Park at any point.

Part of the job, once we get more movement economically on this street, one of my major jobs will be to market it and to present it as a place to do business and a place to be entertained and a place to eat.

WACOAN: What can you say to people who say they’re not coming to Elm because it’s not safe?

Barefield: Ask them, why do they think it’s not safe? What specifics can they say, other than, ‘Oh, it’s not safe.’ I would say that Elm is a safe as any other district.

Part of the PID is working on a project right now to do streetscaping. I think it’s really awesome that one of the few places where the antique lightpoles work is Elm. If you’re down here in the evening, just drive down. It’s beautiful because it’s very well lit. The businesses that are open are keeping the lights on.

You just have to tell people, ‘If you love a good scone, you’re going to have to cross the river for it. You really want decent barbecue, you’re going to have to cross the river for it. You’re crossing the river to go to McLane [Stadium]. What’s the difference?’ And we have to continue to keep that message going. If I tell you the same thing over and over again, eventually, you’re going to want to prove me wrong, but you’re going to have to come to see it to do so.

WACOAN: Since you moved back from Houston last year, what have you seen in Waco that you like?

Barefield: Oh, so much to do. The city as a whole. There’s a whole lot more shopping. There’s much better shopping. Some staples have gone away, which is sad to me.

WACOAN: Such as?

Barefield: I grew up in Goldstein-Migel and Cox’s. But those have been gone a long time, but you hate to see those flagship Waco stores go away. But the shopping has gotten much better.

Food choices. We’ve still got a way to go. I would love to see more fine dining here, but you can get it. You just have to know where to look. One of my favorite places [in Houston] was called the Brownstone. It’s just amazing.

WACOAN: What did it serve?

Barefield: Intricate seafood dishes. Just great fine dining.

One of my sorority sisters and her husband own a series of restaurants in Houston. Those I miss. The Breakfast Klub was the flagship restaurant. They serve breakfast from 7 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon. But they also own a bistro that served a scallop dish that was so good, and I miss that.

WACOAN: You were in Houston for 14 years. What kept that Waco connection for you? Obviously, your parents were here, but it seemed like you never lost your love for Waco.

Barefield: Waco has always been home. It just always felt right. Maybe because I grew up here. I spent so many years here, and it always felt like home. My mother passed away almost 11 years ago, and my father passed away two years ago, so up until 2014 Dad was still here. If I was coming, I was coming to visit my father.

I grew up here. I have friends here. I still had a connectivity with the city. And growing up and all the works my mother did, it became important to see Waco’s development continue. It was just the way I was raised.

WACOAN: Do you think you’re continuing what your mom started?

Barefield: A lot of people say that to me. I hope. I can’t imagine to step in those shoes because they were hers. But it is my hope that the work that I do here honors what she did and continues that part of it.

WACOAN: When you drive into downtown and you see that building with your mom’s name on it, how does that make you feel?

Barefield: I feel very proud. It’s kind of awesome. What’s funny to me is when the boys see it. She was deceased when they were born. [They say,] ‘The Mae Jackson Development Center. That’s my Gran Gran.’

WACOAN: What did you tell your sons about your mom and her work?

Barefield: I told them that she believed in this city. She loved Waco, from her work in social work because she worked at the Methodist [Children’s] Home. She worked at the Waco Center [for Youth]. She believed that there was a great strength here and great purpose here. She worked very hard to see all of the people in Waco, to see that they had the ability to prosper — together. Mom had an amazing ability to meet people where they are.

If I had a personal goal of one of the things that, if I want to be like her, it’s to meet people where they are because everybody’s story is important, because it’s their story. The people who sit in positions of power hold the responsibility to tell the community’s story, and I think she did that.

WACOAN: What else do you like about Waco?

Barefield: I love all the running trails in the park. I like that [the city] has redone the splash pads in the park. The riverfront is beautiful. It’s just been amazing to watch. McLane is a beautiful stadium. And all of the growth that Baylor has done is phenomenal to see. Downtown living wasn’t here when I lived here. People have these beautiful lofts and live and work downtown. I’m glad to see that.

Working very diligently to see — since the arts was my passion — there are some really good performing and visual artists here. This job placed me on the Cultural District Task Force, and I’m so glad to participate in it because when Waco receives Cultural District status, it will allow us to go to the next level in performing arts.

WACOAN: What will that take to gain that status?

Barefield: We’re in the application [process]. The application is due in June. We have been gathering all of the information for our presentation to send to the Texas Commission for the Arts.

WACOAN: What will it mean if Waco is designated as a Cultural District?

Barefield: It allows us greater accessibility to national funding and more resources to receive different artists and programs in our city.

WACOAN: What do you and your family like to do in town?

Barefield: My boys are little, so we go to the park and go play and go to movies. They like to walk around in this area.

My older son is very much into architecture. He loves to draw, but he specifically likes to draw buildings. We go and look around downtown.

WACOAN: What is your younger son into?

Barefield: He’s into paleontology. He spends a lot of time with the mammoths. He’s always been into dinosaurs. We had to get a membership to the [Houston Museum of Natural Science]. One of the selling points to the move here was, ‘Son, Waco just got selected to be in the National Park Service with the mammoth museum.’ He said, ‘All right. Then we can go.’

WACOAN: Did you husband grow up here?

Barefield: No, he’s from Bay City, Texas, down by Galveston, Matagorda Bay.

WACOAN: What did he think about moving to Waco?

Barefield: He was definitely on board with it. It was his idea. It was more difficult for me because both of my parents are deceased. It’s different without them here. I do have, and was blessed enough to have, a lot of extended family here.

WACOAN: I know the show started before you moved back to Waco, but what influence have you seen ‘Fixer Upper’ bring about?

Barefield: Well, I watch everything on HGTV, and I was stoked about ‘Trading Spaces’ with Christi [Proctor]. When ‘Fixer Upper’ came on, I [said], ‘Wait. Is that Waco?’ I was super excited about it.

What have I seen (outside of the 18,000 to 20,000 people per week who come in to go to the silos)? I was at a Main Street conference a few months ago, and one of the Main Street managers in Sherman said that her best friend, who lives in Colorado, was moving to Waco because of ‘Fixer Upper.’ One of my husband’s former co-workers came in just to visit because they are huge fans.

The one thing I think they have done is they’ve done a wonderful job selling our community. Whether or not you’ve ever heard of Waco before, if you see this couple, they have done a fantastic job of selling our community. The people they use and utilize, the local artisans, like Harp Design [Co.] and Jimmy Don, the metal guy [Stars Over Texas]. People are interested in that, and they have put an international spotlight on what we have known all the time.

Wacoans are really cool. We are talented, and we are welcoming, and [the Gaineses] come into your home every week, lots of times, and we have then invited you to come into our [home of Waco]. I think that’s really awesome.

WACOAN: They’re just so positive and Waco-centric. It’s kind of like a 30-minute commercial for Waco.

Barefield: It is. And I love the cut-outs before the scene begins. They’re going around the city, and you’re seeing different things. It looks so amazing, and you want to go see it. Whoever shoots it does a fantastic job.

WACOAN: I’ve heard of people coming to Waco, and it’s kind of like a game: Let’s find all the ‘Fixer Upper’ houses.

Barefield: But because you’ve become so invested in these homes and how the transformation has occurred, you do want to see them.

WACOAN: OK. Back to revitalization — and homeowners. Main Street and City Center work with business owners and residents. What can residents or homeowners do to help with your efforts?

Barefield: We’re all responsible for our neighborhoods. Keeping your neighborhood beautiful, as cliché as it is, changes perception. We work with Waco Community Development and the different neighborhood associations to do simple projects like block cleanups. And that makes the area that you live in better.

We have an AmeriCorps VISTA [employee], Cuevas Peacock, and right now his responsibility is to work with the different neighborhood associations. We can assist them in making their neighborhoods better places.

We are a beautiful switchboard. People have issues; we see who we can connect them to. What we do in neighborhoods is sometimes we’re boots on the ground. Sometimes it’s just about getting them organized with how they want their neighborhood association to develop and grow, maybe connect them with resources we have information about.

WACOAN: Are you reading anything good right now?

Barefield: I’m reading one of [Senator] Ted Kennedy’s books, ‘America Back on Track.’ I just downloaded it. I’ve just read the foreword.

And I read a little devotional book called ‘Starting Over’ by Bob Gass. It’s part of a series about what happens when you’re on a specific path and it veers, and how it’s not considered failure unless you just absolutely stop. There are lessons you learn in that process. It’s a little book, maybe 50 pages. But you have to take your time to read it because it’s kind of like when the pastor is preaching and he’s all over your street, all in your business. It’s good. I just finished that one.
My fluff reads —

WACOAN: You have to have those sometimes.

Barefield: You have to have those. [The author’s] name is Beverly Jenkins, and she does historical romance, but they’re African-American. I just finished one about the Great Migration, ‘Night Song.’

WACOAN: Have you read ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’? It’s about the Great Migration.

Barefield: OK. Good stuff?

WACOAN: Very good stuff. The author interviewed 1,200 people to write it.

Barefield: ‘The Warmth of Other Suns.’ I’m going to get that.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know?

Barefield: I think that Waco has always been poised for greatness, historically. If you go back far enough, Waco was supposed to be the capital of the state, and something happened. The Depression happened. Or cotton failed. Or the tornado happened. Urban Renewal happened. The ‘80s happened. Then other things.

If I can say nothing else about Wacoans, we are the most resilient set of people I have ever seen in my life. We are truly bootstrap folks, that whatever the problem is we’re just going to, ‘OK, let’s clean up, and let’s keep moving.’

I believe that we are at a place where the tilling of the soil and the planting and fertilizing of the soil, we are about to reap an amazing harvest. The level of growth and the plan that we are on is awesome. And I’m really excited about it.

Elijah asked me what I thought about being here, and it’s really an exciting time to be here. Things are happening. Things are moving. Is everything peaches and roses? No. But, it’s enough that we can get there.