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Downtown plans for Stratton shift to new Waco event venue
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Downtown plans for Stratton shift to new Waco event venue

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Developer Peter Ellis once visualized a high-end department store at Eighth Street and Austin Avenue, where he is continuing on a $5 million remodel of the 98-year-old Stratton Building. But he has changed his mind, he said, and is going forward with a venue for dinners, weddings and live events.

“This is a place where our community can gather together to inspire, celebrate, and elevate one another for the building up of our city,” Ellis said in a post on the company website. He said he has not dropped plans for a coffee shop, restaurant and some retail space, but has altered his once elaborate plans for 30 retail tenants sharing sales staff and check-out registers. Before the pivot, a large advertisement was painted on the building declaring it “Waco’s department store.”

But Ellis said COVID-19 and other factors beyond his control forced him to alter plans he began formulating eight years ago. A nonprofit that became City Center Waco sold the building to Ellis in 2014 through a competitive proposal process. In an interview Monday, Ellis said he believes he and his development team have made the Stratton Building a multi-faceted attraction and source of community pride, well worth the $1 million in Tax Increment Financing Zone assistance it was promised in 2017.

“When COVID held on, we realized a department store was not going to meet the greatest need anymore downtown. There are plenty other smaller locations well serving the retail community, and we will support those,” Ellis said. “At the time, we had commitments from more than a dozen merchants, and even some of those had changes in their business plans.”

With time away from the grind, Ellis’ perspective changed on what he hoped to accomplish creating Anthem Stories in the Stratton Building, so named for its multiple levels and the “back stories” retailers would gladly share.

“I don’t think we’re diverging from our original intent. We see it as a public intersection of space right in downtown’s core and very visible,” Ellis said in an email. “We’re confident we’ll receive requests from business groups, educational organizations and production companies wanting to hold events there. A local theater group is hosting our first ticketed event, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ December 10-12. They will utilize the staircase and balcony. There will be catered refreshments. We’re also booking weddings, having a large, open space available. It really does hold nearly 1,000 people, closer to 850.”

A ground-floor cafe, a mezzanine-level restaurant and a rooftop terrace with water features, green spaces and room for 150 people are expected to open in the coming year, he said.

“But for now, we are proud to present this gorgeous showroom space back to the public, and cannot wait for all the variety of meaningful connections and events that we know will take place here in this space,” Ellis wrote.

A department store was not included in his group’s initial presentation to the TIF board when pursuing TIF funding. It later became a point of emphasis, with Ellis touting the 150 feet of glass that wraps around the brick structure, affording passersby a tantalizing look inside.

A brochure showed a ground floor with payment registers, a retail clothing area, fitting room, bridal area, men’s and women’s restrooms and stairs to the basement. The second floor mezzanine, meanwhile, included more registers, a restaurant, bar, bakery, floral shop, kid’s zone and a combination lounge, library and office zone, according to the drawings.

But things change, as did the building’s future, Ellis said.

“We have all had quite the year, and the end of this year likely looks different than any of us pictured December 31 of last year—not that any of us knew what to expect for 2021,” he wrote in his email. “Anthem Stories was not immune to the surprises and shifts of the year, and we are pleased to be opening our restored place to the public with a new vision.

“Retail won’t be at the forefront, though it may be part of some community engagement. There may be a coffee shop and retail to some degree as it becomes a place to study or a place to meet up with family and friends weekends and nights. There are different scenarios.”

He said the 30 Stratton Loft apartments on levels three through five are fully occupied. He said he created three more units than first envisioned.

“We’ve gone above and beyond our original intent and plan. It’s on another level,” Ellis said.

Apartments.com lists a 680-square-foot, one bedroom, one bathroom apartment renting for $1,650 per month.

The neighborhood around the Stratton Building continues to evolve. Chip and Joanna Gaines bought the former Waco Tribune-Herald building at Ninth Street and Franklin Avenue, announcing the space would become Magnolia’s corporate headquarters. The former Phoenix Ballroom on South Third Street, once a venue for large gatherings, has been sold to an investment group promising lofts, office space, retail and an Italian restaurant.

Kent George, in the city of Waco’s economic development office, said Ellis and his team have received the first of four $250,000 TIF payments.

He said the investment group pursued TIF funding promising to extensively renovate the historic structure from top to bottom. He said he visited the place this week, and saw that work remains. He said he could not speak to specific uses throughout the building without more information.

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