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HOT Fair game plan: No rides or bands, but livestock show and rodeo go on

The Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo will continue this October, but with the emphasis on rodeo and no concerts, carnival rides, games, interactive displays, demonstrations, mutton busting or wiener dog races.

The fair will feature an extended youth livestock show, with a component “The United” show added from the State Fair of Texas, Sept. 30-Oct. 18 and the One HOT rodeo on Oct. 10-11 and 15-17, fair officials announced Friday. The livestock show will be limited to youth exhibitors and their guests, while the rodeo is open to the public. Fair food vendors also will operate on the Extraco Events Center grounds during the rodeo.

Fair President and CEO Wes Allison said the smaller, largely rodeo-only fair was designed with an eye to preventing possible COVID-19 spread while allowing the youth livestock show to continue.

“I was ecstatic and sad in the same breath,” Allison said of the announcement of this year’s limited fair. “We’ll do the best we can with what we have to provide some entertainment and an opportunity for youth to win some scholarship money.”

The announcement of the fair comes after last month’s announcement of the State Fair of Texas’ cancellation this year due to COVID-19 concerns.

The regional fair and rodeo, in its 68th year, usually draws up to 200,000 visitors over its 10-day run.

Allison said fair organizers had met with city and county health officials to discuss what could be done safely during a time when COVID-19 remains active and transmissible in the community.

What remained was what the fair could better control: the rodeo with reserved seating, masking and social distancing; a livestock show stretched to 19 days to allow sanitation between showing; and a small number of food concessions.

The One HOT Rodeo will be held over two weekends, Oct. 10-11 and 15-17 in an Extraco Coliseum at 50% capacity, with a One HOT Bullfight event on Oct. 18.

Social distancing and spacing considerations will limit rodeo attendance to 2,588 persons a night. Spectators will need to wear masks and tickets will be sold electronically, either online or via cellphone, with spacing between groups. Tickets are expected to go on sale Sept. 8.

Allison said the cancellation of rodeos and fairs across the country due to COVID-19 will put the HOT rodeo on many calendars. “Because of the situation, we expect to see some of the top contestants coming in October,” he said.

Food concessions will be held much like the Fair Food Drive-In event held on the Extraco Events Center west parking lot in May. There will be no admission charged to visit the food concessions.

The fair’s annual youth livestock exhibition, which draws around 5,000 entries will be held, but spaced out over a longer period to allow sufficient time for cleaning between showings and to limit crowd sizes.

New this year is The United, three showings from the State Fair of Texas youth livestock competition. The state fair will hold its youth market showings in Dallas, but three divisions — youth breeding heifers, youth prospect steers and youth purebred breeding gilts — will shift to Waco and the Extraco Events Center grounds.

Allison said the move will give some local youth the chance to show in the state fair competition, normally held during the same time as the HOT fair. The collaboration will allow young people who’ve raised stock animals for months, if not years, to show those animals in competition for prize money and scholarships.

Organizers are planning a special award or buckle for The United, which may attract several hundred young exhibitors. Though the HOT fair was more than willing to work with the State Fair of Texas to create the joint show, Allison hopes 2021 won’t see a similar need for one.

“This is a one of a kind show — and I pray it is just one of a kind,” he said.

Turning the page
Waco storyteller Vivian Rutherford closing 20-year chapter at library

Waco children’s librarian Vivian Rutherford is rounding out the final pages of a 20-year chapter this week, with an ending leaving her both happy and sad.

Rutherford’s 20 years with the Waco-McLennan County Library are coming to a close as she starts her retirement. She declined to give her age a number, instead saying she has four grandchildren and she and her husband, Max, recently celebrated their 45th anniversary — in the car at a Sonic, but that’s another story.

Rutherford, known as “Miss Vivian” to hundreds of Waco children, teenagers and adults, is retiring from the library to spend more time with her youngest daughter, Valerie, during a difficult pregnancy and a September due date.

She will greet well-wishers in a drive-by celebration planned for 2 p.m. Saturday at South Waco Library, 2737 S. 18th St. She said the sad thing about farewells and telling children stories during an age of COVID-19 is the social distancing: no hugs, no handshakes and her radiant smile behind a mask.

True to form, on her last day at the downtown Central Library, Rutherford was dressed for the occasion, wearing a shirt with the phrase “Vintage Librarian: (noun) Knows more than she says and notices more than you realize.”

On past occasions, she has dressed as a giant red crayon, a clown, a snowman, a Christmas tree, an autumn leaf, but only once as a bunny rabbit. Once, because her costume made a child burst into tears and alarmed others.

“The face was not kid-friendly,” she said.

Two women in Rutherford’s Houston childhood molded much of what would become Rutherford’s life passions, a storytelling grandmother and a book-loving mother. The young girl volunteered to work in her library from elementary school to high school and went on to add a master’s in library science at the University of North Texas after earning her bachelor’s in secondary education.

She and her husband started their family in Houston. She taught in the Houston Independent School District, then was a stay-at-home mom to Marc, Vanessa and Valerie. A job transfer for Max brought them to Waco and Rutherford back to library work, where her bent for teaching never left her as a children’s librarian.

“I call it my fun literacy time,” she said of her years at the library. “When kids would say, “Oh, you’re so silly,” I’d say ‘Thank you.’ That mean they were having fun reading, having fun doing crafts. And when parents would come up and say, ‘My child is actually reading now’ — that is the biggest compliment ever.”

Rutherford’s zest for storytelling informed her readings and children’s programs, making her a minor celebrity among some kids, who would call out to “Miss Vivian” when they would see her at the grocery store or out shopping.

Miss Vivian also did not miss a chance to sing the library’s praises and its resources, Central Library branch manager Sarah Freeland said. Freeland recalled an employee appreciation day held at the Cameron Park Zoo where Rutherford started chatting with a child, then ended up talking to the parents about the library’s children’s section.

Rutherford’s storytelling led her to found the Heart of Texas Storytellers Guild in 2007, with spinoff events including Walking Tales at Oakwood Cemetery and Tellebration.

Terri Jo Mosley, an early guild organizer and participant, credited Rutherford’s initiative and organizational ability.

“Together, we realized that there was enough interest in this community to start our own local storytelling guild, and the Bluebonnet Guild was born,” Mosley said.

McLennan Community College associate professor and local historian Bradley Turner played controversial Waco journalist William Cowper Brann in several Walking Tales events, which involve volunteers standing at grave sites in character as historical figures and telling their stories to strolling participants.

“She’s a pillar in that (storytelling) niche of the community,” he said. “I’m really sad to see her retire.”

Fellow guild member Barbara Bridgewater, who took her young children to Rutherford’s Reading Hour at the library almost 20 years ago, found herself impressed with Rutherford’s enthusiasm and passion — and a van crammed with whatever props she needed for her children’s activities.

“She has such a heart for storytelling,” Bridgewater said. “You could always tell she’s having so much fun.”

Years later, when Bridgewater came to know Rutherford through the guild, she saw other qualities complementing the enthusiasm and passion: flexibility, spontaneity and a cool head for on-the-spot changes.

Even when storytellers showed up and audiences did not, Rutherford was unflappable, Bridgewater said.

“She’d say, “OK, let’s tell stories for ourselves,’” she said.

Marian Fleischmann worked with Rutherford in storytelling several years ago and loved to see her in action. She is now a Dallas-area school teacher.

“She’s a joy, a wonderful person. She’s magic on stage,” Fleischmann said. “She’s silly and wonderful and crazy … with brilliant ways with the children.”

Rutherford is keeping her options open in retirement. Many people have plans for her time, but she will always have a heart for kids, books and people, she said.

But that chapter of her story remains to be told.

Brewing up support: Waco beer businesses band together

Waco Ale Co. on Austin Avenue hosted a meeting Friday of other local businesses devastated by COVID-19 restrictions.

Bare Arms Brewing, Barnett’s Public House, Brotherwell Brewing, Dancing Bear Pub, Truelove Bar, Southern Roots Brewing and Waco Ale Co. are joining forces in an effort to stay afloat financially and keep staffers employed.

They have set up a GoFundMe under the name Waco Craft Bar and Brewery Rescue with a $75,000 goal; are pitching a pooled sponsorship program; and are each selling merchandise to support their needs.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Southern Roots Brewing, between Washington and Columbus Avenues on North Eighth Street, is joining forces with other Waco breweries in an effort to stay afloat.

Housing strong, other sectors weak in June, Greater Waco Economic Index shows

Despite the economic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, homes in Greater Waco sold at a record pace in June, and home construction actually outpaced that in June last year, according to a report released Friday by Amarillo-based economist Karr Ingham.

Ingham’s Greater Waco Economic Index again showed the area’s economic markers took a tumble in June, but the rate of decline “began to show some signs of recovery from the worst effects of COVID-19,” said Ingham.

The economist prepares a monthly report on local trends for the First National Bank of Central Texas and the Tribune-Herald. He uses data dating to the year 2000 to track progress, or lack thereof, in categories such as housing, employment, spending, construction and lodging.

Waco’s raw GWEI score in June was 129.4, down from a revised 129.6 in May and from the 131.1 in June 2019. During the second quarter, the GWEI declined at an annualized rate of 14.6%, Ingham reported.

Still, “the residential real estate market put up record numbers in June in terms of closed sales and the average price of those sales,” Ingham said.

The 383 single-family residences sold in June “is a record sales total, not just for the month of June but for any month, besting by 57 the previous monthly sales record set in July of last year, the economist reported.

Homes sold for an average of $238,700 in June, a record high for the month and 7.1% more than the average in June last year, the report said.

The 1,516 homes sold locally through June is slightly more than the number sold through the first six months of 2019.

The Texas A&M Real Estate Center released a statement on impressive home sales statewide in June, noting that they surpassed 29,000 for the first time since August 2019, according to Texas Multiple Listing Services.

“June housing activity recovered substantial pent-up demand from the economic shutdown,” said James Gaines, chief economist for the Real Estate Center, quoted in a news release. “This positive momentum, however, may be temporary as new coronavirus cases have accelerated in recent weeks.”

The National Association of Realtors reported a 20% increase in sales between May and June. Falling interest rates proved attractive to first-time homebuyers, who accounted for 35% of sales in June.

Home construction also surged in June, with builders taking out 42 permits to build inside the Waco city limits, a 35% increase from June last year, said Ingham, whose findings track homebuilding only in Waco and not in its suburbs. Through June, permits are down 19% from last year.

The Waco office of Associated General Contractors of America casts its net beyond Waco in tracking home construction. Ginger Ritchison, plan room manager, said local communities in July issued 73 permits to build new homes, not including permits that might be requested Friday, the last day of the month. Permits have been concentrated in ZIP Code 76708, near China Spring; and 76712, near Hewitt, Woodway and West Waco.

D.R. Horton, America’s largest homebuilder, continues to erect homes at a breakneck pace locally. It secured 12 permits from the City of Waco during a six-day period beginning July 24, the AGC office reported.

Retail spending declined 8.1% in June, but not really. June totals reflect sales in April and reported to the Texas Comptroller’s Office in May.

April, said Ingham, “will likely by the worst of the COVID impact on spending and retail activity . . . And in fact, it may be something of a surprise that spending activity was not more deeply affected.”

Spending through June reached $1.846 billion, fractionally less than the $1.849 billion through the first six months last year, Ingham said.

“The July sales tax total has already been released, and indeed is factored into the calculation of the June GWEI. That is always the case just so we are using the most timely data available,” said Ingham’s report.

“Incredibly, the July sales tax aggregated total based on May taxable purchases across the metro area was higher than July 2019, suggesting a quick rebound after the deep one-month decline in April,” Ingham said.

The Waco Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes McLennan and Falls counties, continues to recover from losing more than 11,000 jobs between March and April. Ingham said the local economy recovered 4,700 jobs between April and May. The June jobless rate of 7.1% still remains nearly twice that of the 3.7% registered in June last year, Ingham said.

Spending on vehicles reached $68 million in June, significantly more than the $50 million shelled out in June last year. Hotel/motel revenue continues to sag, registering $1.6 million in June from $5.8 million a year earlier.

Carla Pendergraft, who monitors local lodging trends as marketer of the Waco Convention Center, reminded that construction continues on new hotel properties that would add more than 900 rooms to local inventory.

“Occupancy is trending upward,” said Pendergraft.

But Ingham said recovery is pushing uphill, with hotel/motel spending down in June by more than 70% and off more than 65% for the quarter.

Total spending on non-residential projects, including those commercial and industrial related, surged in June to $16.5 million, a 20.7% improvement from June last year. Year to date through June, projects valued at $186 million have been permitted, a 6.2% year-over-year decline.

“The assessment of the Waco metro area economy midway through the year is surprisingly encouraging,” Ingham concluded. “COVID clearly cut deeply into local economic activity, and the impacts will continue to be felt for some time to come, but the analysis of trends through June suggest a more rapid recovery than was probably expected by most.”

45th McLennan County death related to COVID-19 reported as outbreak stabilizes

Local health authorities reported 63 new COVID-19 cases Friday in McLennan County as the death of an 81-year-old Black man attributed to the disease brought the county’s death toll to 45.

On the last day of July, the county had tallied 4,326 residents testing positive since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 situation a pandemic in March. July alone accounted for 3,369 of those cases, or 78%, along with 36 of the deaths.

Still, the caseload has tapered off since peaking between late June and mid-July, when most daily new-case counts exceeded 100. In the past seven days including Friday, 441 cases were reported, an average of 63 per day.

“We’ve seen some stability this week, in that we haven’t seen case counts over 100,” said Waco-McLennan County Public Health District spokesperson Kelly Craine.

The June 23 local mask order could have had a delayed effect, Craine said.

“We didn’t expect to see results from that until July,” she said. “We’ve also been talking about the message of how risky it is, and how you’re likely to get it from someone you know. It seems as though people are taking it to heart.”

The health district estimates the county now has 1,802 residents with active cases and 2,479 who have recovered, based on the time passed since their test samples were collected. Seventy patients remained in local hospitals, including 16 using ventilators, the district reported Friday.

Meanwhile, results have started to come in from free testing offered at Waco sites this week, sponsored by state and local agencies. Of 433 tests administered Monday, 281 results were returned as of Friday, including 35 positive tests, Craine said. Other test results are expected in the next few days.

City officials also announced Friday that the municipal court building will reopen Monday after a two-week closure that resulted from an employee who tested positive for COVID-19. The Waco Fire Department did a thorough disinfection of the building, city officials said.

Midway ISD to start classes in August, require all teachers to report to campuses

The Midway Independent School District will delay the start of school by a week to allow more time for staff training on virtual instruction, pushing back the first day of school to Aug. 24.

All students, whether they have chosen in-person or remote instruction, will resume Midway ISD classes Aug. 24, after the board of trustees unanimously voted Friday morning to adopt the revised school calendar. The school year will end May 27, and all holiday breaks remain the same.

Additionally, all Midway ISD teachers will have to report to their campuses every day, even if they are teaching virtually, Superintendent George Kazanas said.

McLennan County health officials have pushed for districts to postpone reopening their school facilities to students and teachers until after Labor Day because of a surge in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in the county. Waco-McLennan County Health Authority Dr. Farley Verner issued an order July 21 that would have required schools to delay in-person instruction and other on-campus activities until Sept. 8, but Verner rescinded the order after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion letter stating health authorities do not have the power to issue “blanket closure” of schools.

Texas officials clarified Friday that health authorities can shut down schools if a COVID-19 outbreak occurs, and schools will still receive state funding as long as they provide remote instruction during the school closure, according to a press release from Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.

School boards also can close a campus for up to five days if someone on a school campus tests positive for COVID-19, giving the school time to disinfect the campus. The schools would continue to receive state funding as long as they provide remote instruction.

Midway Board President Pete Rusek said many people and organizations have encouraged the school board to make the “right decision” when it comes to reopening schools.

“I wish it were as simple as having a right and wrong answer,” Rusek said. “It’s a very, very complex issue. I am confident that this board will do what our staff has been doing all along, and that is trying to move forward in a manner that represents the best interest of the students and our parents and our community.”

Board member Pam Watts said she is grateful for the administration’s work to get this plan in place, while dealing with ever-changing information and guidelines from the state.

“It’s been like trying to pilot an ocean liner with the turn radius of a jetski,” she said.