By Maria Halkias
The Dallas Morning News.
Chip and Joanna Gaines have put their stamp on Waco forever.
This talented, driven couple and their cable TV show have harnessed the good life in this Central Texas college town and presented it to a national audience.
They’re an economic boom that’s better than an oil gusher, rippling through the town as their HGTV show, “Fixer Upper,” breaks ratings records. The show attracts one of the most upscale audiences on cable in the ages 25 to 54 sweet spot. Its second season, which aired earlier this year, attracted 24 million viewers.
Joanna is being called the next Martha Stewart. She has a huge following and yet-to-be-revealed interests beyond interior design, including a 350-piece furniture line that hits stores nationwide in January and ideas for food and entertaining.
Chip is the reason more men are watching a home design show, a smart, funny, approachable guy in a gimme cap living the American dream with a wife, four kids and a remodeling business in a medium-size city down in Texas.
Joanna’s dad says she was way too serious before she met Chip.
The chemistry between them is genuine and magnetic as they take houses that are ugly or in poor condition and save them, turning them into affordable dream homes for real families.
Waco’s Visitor’s Bureau gets daily requests, and not just from people planning to visit. In “Fixer Upper’s” third season, which begins Dec. 1, three of the featured couples moved to Waco because of the show. Waco hotels report that the frequency of visitors from New York, California and the Midwest has jumped since 2014, when the first season of “Fixer Upper” aired.
Chip and Joanna’s fame gives the outside world more to associate with Waco than May’s deadly biker gang shootout and the distant Branch Davidian siege.
Last month, at the big High Point, N.C., furniture market, orders from retailers for Magnolia Home by Joanna Gaines exceeded expectations by tenfold, Standard Furniture told the trade press. The Alabama-based company is making the furniture. Gaines had 100 days to design 350 pieces, and Standard Furniture sent a staff to Waco to make sketches for her.
Magnolia Market will add a furniture showroom in January.
Considering that the first “Fixer Upper” season was just last year, the couple is moving fast.
“There is a lot going on,” Joanna Gaines said. “But we believe in seizing the opportunities. We’re dreaming big, but we’re putting family first. Everything we do is based on that.”
Gaines said that when the couple married in 2003, they agreed to “plant our roots here and help make Waco grow.”
“We never thought it would be at this level,” she said. “It’s all very humbling and exciting.”
Two new projects featured in upcoming “Fixer Upper” episodes will draw even more fans to town.
The couple’s new store, Magnolia Market at the Silos, opened last month in one of the abandoned buildings on a 2.6-acre complex they’ve developed. It has open event space for live music in an area with picnic tables and food trucks. There’s a working garden around two old 120-foot-tall silos and another building that they may restore soon into a bakery.
The 4,000-square-foot store replaces a 550-square-foot shop that was attracting 2,000 customers a week. The store’s opening weekend festivities drew 10,000 people.
“We have 125 employees now and just hired 20 more last week for the store,” said Jerry Stevens, CEO of Magnolia Homes and Joanna Gaines’ father.
The show will also feature the couple’s work on a four-bedroom 1850 Victorian home that they’re turning into a bed and breakfast.
Magnolia Market’s online business opened last year and ships 700 packages a day, employing 32 people and counting, Stevens said.
Gaines’ parents had been living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area but moved back to Waco to help with the rapid growth. “We weren’t prepared for all this and the response from the public,” Stevens said. “They still have to do the show, and they have little children.”
Stevens used to own and operate the Firestone store in Waco, and Joanna Gaines got her start in TV at 16 when she began appearing in the store’s commercials. She did that for 10 years, through high school and while she was a student at Baylor University.
Magnolia Market started out selling repurposed antiques and discards Joanna found at flea markets. As the business grew, it added pieces from other Texas artisans and suppliers. The store hands out a map of other shops and restaurants around town to occupy out-of-town visitors.
As more businesses open in Waco, the Gaineses may help turn Waco into the next hot spot for shoppers.
“We’ve reached some kind of threshold with Chip and Joanna,” said Trent Weaver, who owns a 34,000-square-foot building in downtown Waco where he recently leased space to Fuzzy’s Taco Shop. “Other businesses are opening downtown, and people are living downtown in lofts above the buildings.”
Waco is suddenly cool.
The city is scoring more than your run-of-the-mill economic development successes.
Fans of the Baylor Bears can anchor their boats on the Brazos River next to a new $250 million football stadium, making it one of only two college towns where “sailgating” is possible. (Knoxville, Tenn., is the other.)
International award-winning Balcones whisky is being brewed in a downtown distillery.
Waco’s mammoth fossil site was declared a national monument, a designation that ratchets up the visitors.
And the Texas Department of Transportation decided to add cool multi-colored LED light show capabilities to its fancy Interstate 35 bridges over the Brazos River.
Then there’s Chip and Joanna.
“It’s a perfect storm,” said Dale Fisseler, Waco’s city manager. The city is working on a comprehensive plan to handle growth and potential development along the Brazos due to Baylor’s new stadium.
“People who have lived here 30, 40 years say there’s never been this much positive excitement,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the show.”
Even before “Fixer Upper”, the Gaineses were leading Waco’s urban renewal, Fisseler said. Chip flipped his first house when he was a student at Baylor.
Fisseler estimates that the couple is personally responsible for revitalizing at least 20 blocks in older Waco neighborhoods. And that’s not counting the work other people have done as their inspiration has spread.
Waco has a lot of vacant land because one of the most devastating tornadoes in Texas history nearly destroyed the city in 1953. The Gaineses took one of those empty parcels and built a new subdivision of 36 patio homes called Magnolia Villas.
Magnolia Realty is another one of their businesses. It has 20 agents, including two each in Dallas, Austin and Houston to handle regional demand from “people who want to meet with us because they want to move to Waco,” Stevens said.
The couple knows the ups and downs of the real estate business, said their banker, David Littlewood, president of First National Bank.
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“They were right in the middle of the downturn a few years ago like everyone else, but they weathered the storm, and now they’re lifting others with them.”
Clint and Kelly Harp are an example of a new business that has grown off the “Fixer Upper” coattails. The couple moved to Waco from Dallas in December 2011 so Kelly could go to graduate school and Clint could start making furniture. He met Chip at a gas station in early 2012 after seeing the Magnolia Homes sign on his truck. A few months later, they were filming a pilot for HGTV.
Harp Design Co. has a dozen employees, and Clint is a regular on “Fixer Upper.” Their store is in front of the shop where Clint and his apprentices make tables for people from as far away as Florida and California.
“We’re a small business with big national spotlight,” Clint Harp said. “It’s no longer just our moms and relatives buying from us.”
Megan Henderson of Waco’s Downtown Development Corp. said people walk around saying “we’re going to look back at this moment as the bend in a hockey stick.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Magnolia brand is a juggernaut for Waco, Henderson said. “Chip and Joanna have shown us how to adapt and reuse some of our historic places, and now we have more local homegrown businesses, breweries, a coffee roaster and distilleries, all with a story to tell.”
While it’s hard to quantify, the benefits of the Gaineses are multi-layered, said Texas economist Ray Perryman, who lives in Waco. People are making special trips to Waco or just pulling off I-35 because there’s a reason to come into town.
The couple’s building projects create construction jobs. The new retail store will create sales taxes in addition to jobs.
“Any remodeling company and store can do that,” Perryman said. “What is different about Chip and Joanna is, of course, that they’re famous.”
Chip and Joanna Gaines of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper”
Joanna Gaines opened her first Magnolia Market store in Waco in 2003. Chip made the store sign from old sign letters he recycled. She closed that Magnolia Market in 2005 after she had her second child. She continued to have trunk shows a few times a year until she reopened the store in January 2014.
The couple estimates that in the last 15 years, they have worked on more than 200 homes within a 30-mile radius of Waco.
Joanna graduated from Baylor University in 2001 with a communications degree. She interned with Dan Rather and thought about a career in broadcast journalism. Chip graduated in 1998 from Baylor. They didn’t meet until after college, when he came into her father’s Firestone shop for a brake job.
The couple was discovered by High Noon Entertainment, which first noticed Joanna’s blog.
The pilot for “Fixer Upper” ran in 2013, but the first season aired in 2014.
The family doesn’t have a television, but their four children under the age of 10 have plenty to do. They live on 40 acres with 60 animals, including goats and chickens.
Chip listened to the World Series on the radio. He was rooting for the Royals.
Chip and Joanna have lived in several of the homes they’ve remodeled. He’s the one who buys the houses, and he sometimes surprises Joanna with news that they’re moving. During test filming for the show, he hauled an old boat on location and told Joanna they were going to live in it while they were renovating it.
Chip almost missed the opening of the new Magnolia Market because he threw his back out trying to get a drone that had lost its battery power off the roof.
There’s a Chip’s Corner in Magnolia Market that sells tools and his black fleece vest.
The show is based on the couple’s real-life career of finding the worst house on the best block. A diamond in the rough is what they call a fixer-upper.