Skip to Navigation Skip to Main Content

Will Waco’s gains outlast ‘Fixer Upper’?

Profile image for J.B. Smith
J.B. Smith, Waco Tribune-Herald

Economic growth continues as show enters final season

WACO (AP) -- On a recent Thursday afternoon at Magnolia Market at the Silos, tourists line up for $3.50 "shiplap cupcakes" where mill workers once weighed wagons of cottonseed.

In the shadow of the rusted silos, children toss beanbags on a village green of artificial turf. Parents slouch in striped beanbag chairs. Food trucks dispense wood-fired pizza, crepes and pineapple-kale smoothies.

A young woman from St. Louis walks out of the retail store with a $70 wooden sign: "Laundry: Wash-Dry-Fold." A journalism teacher from Chino, California, carries a wreath of artificial magnolia leaves, as seen on Fixer Upper, the wildly popular home improvement TV show that is about to start its fifth and final season.

A retiree who has flown here from Chandler, Arizona, boards the "Silo District Trolley" with her goodies, content with having been to the capital of the lifestyle empire that Chip and Joanna Gaines have created from their TV fame.

How big are the Silos as a tourist attraction?

Bigger than the Alamo.

This year, with an average of more than 30,000 visitors a week, Magnolia Market should draw about 1.6 million people, according to the Waco Convention and Visitors bureau. Those include four chartered buses that have carried tourists from New York to Waco over the past year.

The Silos are the signature of a growing Waco company that now employs 600 people, according to the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.

But it's not the stuff that brings the crowds. It's a brand, the glow of a couple have become icons of faith, family and affordable home design to millions of Americans.

"I don't think I've ever felt this way about any show before," said Annette Deming, the California journalism teacher, who made a three-hour round trip to Waco while attending a convention in Dallas. "I think it's because of the strong marriage they have. I resonate with this idea of getting into a project with the person you love."

Tuesday marked the beginning of the end for Fixer Upper, the show that has become HGTV's biggest hit, catapulted the Gaineses to national fame over the last four years, and served as a weekly infomercial for Waco's homey charms and affordability.

The show's fourth season ended in March with a peak of 5.21 million viewers, the second-biggest cable telecast of the second quarter of the year, according to Variety.

Then, in September, the Gaineses announced they would walk away from the show and devote their attention to their other business projects and their four children.

Since then, Waco water-cooler talk has centered on whether this is also the beginning of the end of the Gaineses' cultural relevancy and for the jolt they have brought Waco's economy.

Are Chip and Joanna a fad that will fade as the fickle American public moves on to other charismatic personalities? Is the much-touted "Magnolia effect" -- the force that has filled hotels, roiled the local housing market and fueled a downtown development frenzy -- just a bubble?

As you might expect, local tourism and economic development officials say no, as do local businesses who have hitched their wagons to the Gaineses' star.

"I absolutely believe it has staying power," Waco Main Street manager Andrea Barefield said. "They have so many irons in the fire. ... What we need to do is take this and capitalize on it and really create a brand for Waco. ... We've invited millions of people into our home. For organizations like ours, the challenge is, 'Let's make sure the front porch is swept, that we change out of the flowers and have curb appeal.'"

Retail and branding experts from outside Waco agree the Magnolia brand, and the halo effect it has brought to Waco, can continue to grow if the Gaineses and the community play their cards the right way.

Adam Hanft, a brand strategist based in New York, said the Gaineses' decision to shift attention to their home and hometown could actually bolster the wholesome image they have already earned. Ultimately, they could return with another TV show, perhaps focused on a different topic, such as parenting or entrepreneurship.

"The potential is there," Hanft said. "People like homecoming stories. It's a good time to demonstrate their impact on the town, and what it's done for their relationship and their values to raise their family there."

Kelli Hollinger, director the Center for Retailing Studies at the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, has talked to Magnolia officials when they have come for recruitment visits.

Hollinger said she's impressed with the company's strategy of starting with "content, brand and story" and moving into "merchandise and experience."

"They've made huge investments in their brand. It is really strong," she said. "It will be up to them to see how deep those emotional connections are with their followers."

Magnolia spokesman Brock Murphy declined to comment for this story and said the Gaineses are taking a break from interviews. The couple is vacationing in Italy after wrapping up filming.

The economic impact on Waco is hard to quantify, because Magnolia doesn't share sales numbers, and sales tax numbers can't be traced to individual businesses.

But tourism officials say the spinoff has been dizzying. Attendance at Waco-area attractions is estimated to be 2.6 million this year, a fourfold increase over 2015, the Convention and Visitors Bureau reports. Hotel occupancy rates in the second quarter of 2017 were 75.5 percent, the second-highest in the state, and hundreds of new hotel rooms are under development.

"Our colleagues in the convention and visitors industry are very jealous," said Carla Pendergraft, marketing director at the bureau. "They ask us what it's like, and I say, 'lightning in a bottle.' We make sure people understand we just kind of got lucky. But maybe we were due for a little good luck."

The Magnolia effect has drawn some grumbling in Waco, too. It has brought too much traffic and not enough parking in downtown Waco, critics say. Some blame it for skyrocketing downtown property tax values, which increased 20 percent this year and 31 percent the year before, though the 2015 readjustment was strongest by the Brazos River, not the Silos. Some say it has caused a housing speculation bubble in Waco.

Matthew McLeod, a Waco real estate agent who sells mid-priced and upscale homes, said Chip and Joanna Gaines deserve credit for bringing visitors and visibility to Waco. But he said the idea that Waco has boomed because of Magnolia is overblown.

"I think they've done great things," McLeod said. "They have a great company. But I'm not sure you can say Waco has grown thanks to Magnolia. I think there's 50 components to that growth."