Of all the places in Texas tourists might want to visit, Waco has never been high on the list.
Located in Central Texas along I-35, it was too far away from Austin and Dallas to get spillover traffic from those cities, and didn’t have enough attractions for anyone to seek it out on its own. Tourists were more likely to stop in the tiny town of West, Texas, just north of Waco, for its famous kolaches.
But over the last three years that’s been changing, thanks in large part to Joanna and Chip Gaines’s hit HGTV show Fixer Upper, which aired its final episode Tuesday night. The couple has brought fresh attention to Waco through the show, and their real estate ventures have created downtown sites that are attracting not only Texans, but tourists from all over the country. TripAdvisor ranked Waco No. 2 on its list of top destinations on the rise for 2018.
“We are actually a destination site now,” said realtor Trish Griffin, who has sold real estate in Waco for 18 years. “We actually have people moving here because of the show. [Tourists] come here to do things in Waco.”
Fixer Upper’s impact on Waco is best symbolized by downtown’s Magnolia Market at the Silos. Under the shadow of two towering grain silos built in the 1950s, Magnolia Market sprawls across two and a half acres and features a food truck park, lawn games, a supply and seed store, a bakery, antique shops, and more. Writing about the opening of the market in 2015, Country Living called Magnolia Market “an expression of Gaines family values and a sort of shrine to their lifestyle.”
A new “Silo District Downtown Trolley”, which runs every 15 to 20 minutes and comes with free parking, links Magnolia Market to other dining, shopping, and arts offerings in downtown Waco. The Gaineses also have two vacation rentals in the area: Magnolia House in nearby city of McGregor and Hillcrest Estate right in Waco. And last month, they opened a new restaurant called Magnolia Table, located two miles south of the Silos.
To say the market and redevelopment of downtown Waco is a hit would be an understatement. Prior to 2015, when the second season of Fixer Upper aired, Waco hosted few more than 25,000 visitors in any given month.
Today, Waco regularly sees monthly tourism well north of 100,000, and in March 2017, when the city hosted big events like Spring at the Silos and the Texas Food Truck Showdown, more than 300,000 visitors made the trek to Waco. Similar figures were expected for this past March.
“We just had Spring at the Silos a couple of weeks ago and we had 80,000 people in town just to visit that,” said Carla Pendergraft, director of marketing for the city of Waco. “We only have 132,000 people in our town so this is impacting us tremendously. We’ve had to look at traffic, parking, signage, wayfinding, maps, everything. Everything has been affected from A to Z.”
Waco’s sudden rebrand as Chip and Joanna’s workshop is a welcome change for residents of the city. If you asked outsiders prior to Fixer Upper what came to mind when thinking of Waco, you’d likely get two responses: David Koresh and Baylor University.
The 51-day standoff between federal law enforcement and David Koresh’s cult at the Mount Carmel Center just outside of Waco ended in 1993 when federal agents stormed the compound. About 80 people died in the ensuing fire, including 20 children.
While the deadly event didn’t technically occur in Waco, and few actual residents of Waco were involved, the event became a defining one for the city. It didn’t help that during the standoff news media branded Koresh “the Waco Wacko” and replayed clips of Koresh singing a song called “Mad Man in Waco.”
And while Baylor is a reputable institution with many distinguished alumni, the university has attracted national attention for unseemly events tied to its athletics department, notably a murder on its basketball team in 2003 and rape allegations against its football players in 2016.
“For years, probably the first 10 or 15 years after the [Koresh] standoff, we were hit with that nearly constantly,” Pendergraft said. “I’m not saying we don’t hear it from time to time, but Waco has certainly come to terms with it. That has faded, and it’s replaced with the new brand that Chip and Joanna has brought.”
That’s evident just walking through downtown Waco today. Tourists now flock to Waco with such frequency that the city has had trouble housing all of them, especially when multiple events are happening at the same time. Waco had the second-highest hotel occupancy rate in the state of Texas in 2017, behind only Austin. Many tourists are turned away and have to stay in nearby Temple and Hillsboro.
With Fixer Upper ending after five seasons, the trick for Waco is now to keep the momentum going. Pendergraft, however, doesn’t think the show ending will signal the end of boom times for Waco.
The downtown area’s new developments won’t go away after the show ends, and she points to the Gaines’s magazine Magnolia Journal and their forthcoming show Fixer Upper: Behind the Design as ways the Magnolia brand will continue to draw visitors to Waco.
“A lot of people think the end of the show is the end of Waco as we know it, but it’s just not how we see it here,” Pendergraft said.
“[The Gaineses] have so many things going on. They love Waco. Maybe that’s the most important ingredient. They just love Waco. Their love for it shows.”