“Waco is a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit here.”
— A longtime resident
I spent 15 of the most productive years of my adult life in Waco, Texas. I made lots of wonderful friends. I have family there. I like Waco.
But I cannot wrap my brain around the fact that this city of 125,000 souls — once called the Vatican on the Brazos and described as one tall building surrounded by Baptists — was named by TripAdvisor as one of the top 10 places to visit in America in 2018. No. 2, behind only Kapaa, Hawaii.
To what or to whom can this meteoric rise as a vacation destination be attributed? The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame? The Dr. Pepper Museum? The weather in August?
According to Business Insider, “Chip and Joanna Gaines are responsible for a huge spike in tourism to their hometown of Waco, Texas.”
Chip and Joanna Gaines are the winsome couple who hosted HGTV’s most popular show, “Fixer Upper,” from 2013-2018 and who have parlayed their reality TV fame into a business enterprise that now occupies two downtown city blocks.
In 2014, a year before the Gaineses opened their shopping complex next to two 120-foot-tall, empty, rusting silos, 606,000 tourists visited Waco. Three years later that number exploded to 2.5 million. The Magnolia Market, the centerpiece of their enterprise, reportedly attracts 30,000 visitors — every week.
In addition to Magnolia Market, the Gaines properties include the Magnolia Table Restaurant (located across town) and the Silo Baking Company. In the fall they plan to open a hotel in a fixed-up former Masonic hall. This summer the Gaineses, who began flipping houses after graduating from Baylor University, “making Waco beautiful one home at a time,” will launch their own network in conjunction with the Discovery Network.
While I enjoyed watching “Fixer Upper” and am duly impressed by Joanna’s creativity and entrepreneurship — her sleek line of furniture and furnishings has been featured in House Beautiful and according to various websites is available at the Hickory Furniture Mart as well as at Target and Pier One stores — for the life of me I can’t figure out why some people drive for hours across the flatlands of Central Texas to visit the Magnolia Market and spend considerable amounts of money when they get there.
The Magnolia Market, which is located in a spacious former warehouse rechristened as a “barn,” is a power exercise in branding. You can buy Magnolia T-shirts for up to $52; Magnolia candles, top price $58; Magnolia tote bags for $38; and a Magnolia travel mug for $45.
Most of the home furnishings appear to be factory-made in China, Thailand and Vietnam. Which is puzzling, because north of town there is a remarkable crafts village run by fresh-faced Anabaptists. Their pottery, furniture and woven goods are expensive too, but at least they are handmade by actual Texans.
Joanna is everywhere. There are books by Joanna; a book by Joanna and Chip; a children’s book by Joanna and “the kids.” (The Gaines are the parents of five young children who can be counted on to wander into each episode of “Fixer Upper.”) There are racks of back issues of the monthly Magnolia Journal, each featuring Joanna on the cover.
Then there’s this: The Magnolia Market website offers “8 tips for enjoying your visit.” Tip no. 2: “Make plans to eat at the Silo.” Eating at the Silo means choosing from among eight to 10 food trucks. I have nothing against food trucks. I like food trucks. But if I drive halfway across the Lone Star State to visit the No. 2 travel destination in America, I expect to have lunch seated somewhere out of the Texas heat.
Tip no. 3: “Use our outdoor bathrooms.” I hate to sound like an East Coast elitist, but I can’t imagine the Biltmore even having outdoor bathrooms and, if it had some, encouraging their use because “on busy days our indoor bathrooms have a long line.”
Most of the Wacoans I talked with recently had not visited the Market. It seems to be a tourist thing. But locals are loath to say anything negative about the Gaines’ burgeoning business empire. Two and a half million tourists bring a lot of money to town.
There may be something besides a jolt in the local economy at work. If business continues to be good for the Gaineses, Waco may yet escape its unfortunate guilt-by-association with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.