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Liquor store planned in North Waco attracts opposition

Liquor store planned in North Waco attracts opposition

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A retail center near 18th Street and Colcord Avenue that would include a liquor store has raised concern among residents who fondly remember when Mission Waco bought a former liquor store only blocks away, Martha Jane’s Package Store, in 2017 and converted it to space now occupied by a Mexican ice cream shop.

The developer said the attractive new space will offer products and services the neighborhood wants. But some are considering efforts to push back against it.

Neighbors noticing new signs at 1223 N. 18th St. wondered why that was their first indication of what would be going in at the new strip center, said Joshua Caballero, a community organizer with Grassroots Community Development, a local organization that builds homes, offers home-ownership education and runs a city-funded roof repair program, among others. The new 7,000-square-foot strip center will house 18th Street Liquor, Dollar Store & Café and potentially a laundromat, in addition to offering CBD products and check-cashing services, Caballero said.

“The initial concerns we heard were, ‘Hey, we didn’t know this was happening until we saw the signs go up. Did you know anything about it?’ ” Caballero said in a phone interview. “We did a little digging and discovered the property already was zoned to permit a liquor store, so there would be no public notification, at least not through usual Waco Plan Commission channels.”

Grassroots Community Development’s offices are about a block away from the new development.

“The neighborhood was very grateful for what Mission Waco did. Now, to get a liquor store just a few blocks away, it’s like a gut punch,” Caballero said.

Viraj Gupta, a Greater Waco resident developing the center, said he wants to assure residents he has the neighborhood’s best interest at heart.

“I don’t know what that other liquor store looked like. Our vision is something clean and low in crime. There are some pretty high quality security cameras all over the facility, more than 60 cameras in and out,” Gupta said. “Security and safety will be our prime focus, plus top-notch customer service.

“We’re not wanting to encourage any kind of ghetto business or drug activities,” said Gupta, 47. “We come from good families. When the businesses are up and running, I’d like my customers to be interviewed, to be asked what they think about it. It’s something we will take pride in.”

Gupta said he is a foundryman, or metal worker, by profession. He and his business partner have dabbled in real estate and other ventures.

“We started thinking about this a couple of years ago,” he said. “It’s a pretty big project, so we thought it very important to get some type of feedback during the initial phases. We talked with neighbors on Colcord and Ethel, and the feedback we received was very, very encouraging. I was not aware of any opposition. It was pretty obvious what the community was demanding.”

Gupta said he hired an architect and set out to design and construct “a nicer building than the mom-and-pop shops coming up. We wanted it to have curbside appeal. A tour will show you how the color combinations come together, how they pop everything out. We believe this is something different than what the area has been offering in years past.”

He will not have gas pumps, he said, “because there are gas pumps right across the street. It’s not necessary to create more competition.”

Gupta said the center will include a convenience store with mini-grocery-store elements. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission spokesman Chris Porter said active permits there allow the sale of wine, beer and distilled spirits.

Gupta said customers will be able to avail themselves of check-cashing and bill-paying options, use Western Union services and buy lottery tickets. Merchandise will be comparable to that found in dollar stores and may include automotive supplies and gift-wrapping materials, Gupta said.

The center also will sell salads, pizza, fried chicken and hamburgers to go.

“From a business standpoint, check cashing is the riskiest, with half-a-percent margin to play with,” he said. “It’s not something we want to showcase or necessarily be proud of, but it’s convenient for people who like to cash checks.”

He said his layout initially did not feature a drive-thru lane for the liquor store. That feature was added as COVID-19 continued to threaten, Gupta said.

Though Gupta had the zoning he needed to operate a liquor store, he needed a special permit for the drive-thru lane due to the building’s proximity to a residential neighborhood, said planning director Clint Peters, who added the Waco City Council’s approval of the drive-thru-lane permit did not specifically address its use by the liquor store but by the center in general.

Gupta said his team continues to consider the merits of placing a laundromat inside the development, with a decision a few weeks away.

A laundromat and a restaurant are among the uses neighbors suggested for Mission Waco’s retail space a few blocks away in the former Martha Jane’s liquor store.

The new development is in Waco City Council District 4, now represented by Darius Ewing. The Waco City Council in June chose Ewing from among eight candidates to complete the term of Dillon Meek, who resigned the seat upon moving outside the district. Meek is running to become Waco mayor.

“I talked with Josh (Caballero), and he had received concerns from some of the residents,” Ewing said in a phone interview. “Taken in a vacuum, there is nothing inherently terrible about these businesses. A check-cashing place, a convenience store, a liquor store, there is nothing bad about them in and of themself. But they don’t necessarily showcase progress in the neighborhood.”

He said there is little, if anything, the city staff or council can do, considering the C-2 zoning at that address accommodates liquor stores.

“The community can act, can take steps. I think the community will make it known if it’s going to be of benefit,” Ewing said. “I definitely have been made aware through people like Josh. Some residents have concerns.”

Sammy Smith, president of the Brook Oaks Neighborhood Association, said he continues to have misgivings about the new project.

“I do have concern about the alcohol and the negativity it can bring to a community,” Smith said by phone. “Don’t get me wrong. People have a right to drink, but by the same token, alcohol can bring negativity. Liquor stores, check-cashing, payday loans, there is a tendency to place those businesses in communities at-risk and in-need. And with COVID-19, with people really hurting, they can take advantage of people who are really vulnerable.

“Sometimes they are just not a good fit for a neighborhood.”

There is no indication of plans for a payday lending operation at the new center.

Caballero said he and others with concerns are weighing the merits of raising the issue with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

He continues to solicit comments and has told some he plans to organize a meeting on the topic Tuesday.

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