From our television screens, Waco, Texas, looks like a small town on the precipice of rebirth. But the reality for residents is more complicated.
When I came to Waco, I had expected to be impressed by the Magnolia empire. After being indoctrinated into Joanna Gaines' stylish designs through "Fixer Upper" and learning that tourism in Waco had quadrupled from 2014 to 2019, I figured the Silos and other Magnolia-owned properties in town must be worth the hype. But I found myself more absorbed by the city's unique places and culture than anywhere Chip and Joanna's fingerprints could be seen — the very places locals told me are slipping away as Magnolia takes over.
Chip and Joanna's goal has always been to lift up Waco, a small city with a complicated past. Instead, they're creating a homogenized utopia, catering to a smaller and smaller group that often sidelines or pushes out locals.
Representatives for Chip and Joanna did not respond to Insider's request for comment on this story.
Although just 139,594 people live in Waco (as of July 2021), its reputation has historically rested on tragedies so horrible they garner nationwide attention.
In 1916, a mob lynched and burned 17-year-old Jesse Washington in front of a crowd of 15,000 Waco residents — which was approximately half the town's population, The New York Times reported. W.E.B Du Bois published photos of Washington's body in the NAACP's magazine. The organization also used the photos in its anti-lynching campaign.
In 1953, an F-5 tornado killed 114, injured another 600, and destroyed dozens of buildings and homes. Decades later, the city is still rebuilding. Then, in 1993, America had a front-row seat to the bizarre 51-day FBI siege of the Branch Davidians cult compound; it culminated in a fatal fire that killed 76 people and was later dubbed the Waco Massacre. Most recently, a 2015 biker shootout stained the city. The explosive fight ended with nine dead, 20 wounded, and 177 people in police custody — and no convictions seven years later. It seemed like Waco just couldn't catch a break.
The city's luck appeared to turn on a dime when Chip and Joanna Gaines landed their HGTV deal. Joanna moved to Waco in middle school, and Chip stayed in town after attending Baylor University. As the story goes, he first saw Joanna in a photo at her father's automotive shop, and he started coming by just to try to see her. When they finally met, sparks flew, and the rest is history.
After they married, the Gaineses quickly became business owners. They opened Magnolia Realty in 2003, and Chip and Joanna opened the original Magnolia Market the same year. They also started flipping houses at the same time, starting with their own home. But their big break came in 2012 when an HGTV producer asked Joanna to consider filming a renovation series. When "Fixer Upper" aired in 2013, it became an instant sensation, with 1.9 million people watching the pilot.
During the show's run from 2013 to 2017, Chip and Joanna turned Magnolia into an empire. Magnolia Realty grew, they wrote multiple books, they released a furniture line with Target, and they renovated home after home. It all culminated with the opening of the Silos in 2015: a brick-and-mortar location for fans to shop for their candles, gardening supplies, and furniture in downtown Waco. With 11 stores, a coffee shop, a bakery, and over a dozen food trucks, the Silos is like a cross between an amusement park and a gift shop. Later, in 2018, the Gaineses opened a restaurant, Magnolia Table, across town.
I saw the Silos for myself in February, when mostly middle-aged, white couples, and young, mostly white families milled about, carrying ever-filling shopping bags. Children played with balls in front of the famous Silos towers — one of which had been tagged with "C + J = 4 ever" — and others took to a miniature baseball field to pass the time while their parents shopped. A restored church sat proudly on a lawn alongside cottage boutiques, and almost all of the buildings were stark white, matching Joanna's signature style. AstroTurf covered the grounds, but the grass on the outer edges of the Silos is real so dogs have a place to go to the bathroom. "They thought of everything," one Magnolia staff member told me.
Nearly everything at the Silos is Magnolia branded: hats, T-shirts, tote bags, mugs. The Gaineses also provide Open Water aluminum water-bottles for merchants to sell that are embossed with a message from Chip about plastic pollution that encourages people to recycle. But I didn't see a single recycling bin at the Silos during my visit.
The Silos was also almost completely surrounded by construction during my three-day visit. Roads were being repaved, and an unmarked white building sat across from the back entrance, seeming to match the rest of the cottages inside the Silos gates. Shoppers speculated it would soon be another Magnolia store. A few blocks away, the Gaineses are renovating their Magnolia Hotel, which is set to open in 2023. For a planned "Fixer Upper" spinoff, they're renovating a castle in town, which fans will be able to tour from July to October of this year. Chip and Joanna seemed to be trying to single-handedly transform Waco into a Texas city to love: a tourist destination rather than a pit stop between Dallas and Austin.
In many ways, Chip and Joanna succeeded. The Silos is busy year-round, with some visitors making day trips from other parts of Texas while others cross the country to see the world of Magnolia. Between 30,000 to 35,000 people come to the Silos each week, and that number jumps even higher during events like Silobration, Magnolia's birthday celebration that doubles as a festival full of vendors.
It seems for most "Fixer Upper" superfans, seeing Magnolia in person is everything they hoped it would be. I heard a constant refrain of "amazing" or "awesome" from visitors as I walked the grounds. Nearly everyone carried a Magnolia-branded bag of merchandise, and it seemed like people were as impressed by the aesthetics of the grounds as they were by the products. I heard someone murmur, "This is so pretty. How did they get it to be so pretty?" as she left a shop.
Data shows the Magnolia effect has been good for the city as a whole. Not only has tourist traffic brought new revenue to the city, but, according to the Waco Snapshot Report, the population has also been steadily increasing since 2015, leading to new housing developments. In 2015, 129,193 people lived there. By 2019, that number jumped to 135,858. The report says the city's poverty rate is declining, too: 29% of the population lived in poverty in 2015, compared to 26.2% in 2019.
Chip and Joanna's rise has also led to a non-Magnolia-owned satellite industry full of businesses that cater to tourists. Newer restaurants like Milo's All Day sit near the Silos, so visitors find themselves stopping in to eat after a day of shopping. There are also businesses like Waco Tours, owned by "Fixer Upper" alumni Luke and Rachel Whyte and David and Rachel Ridley, that pack Chip and Joanna fans into buses and show them what Waco has to offer.
The tour lasts two and a half hours, includes a free ice cream, and stops at Magnolia-owned businesses, "Fixer Upper" homes, and local spots. The tour doesn't shy away from the fact that most people who visit town are there because of Chip and Joanna. My guides made lighthearted jokes about the legendary pair and indulged everyone's questions about them.
"Any tourist business that's a part of our city is absolutely riding the coattails of what they started," Luke Whyte told me of the company's approach to how the Gaineses fit into their story. "For that, we're super thankful."
"They're real people, and we respect their privacy," he said, adding that although the tourists come for Chip and Joanna, the company wants to show a fuller picture of Waco. "We want to showcase our city, not because of the fame and notoriety of individuals, but because of the story that we think matters to all people coming through town."
But as I saw more of Waco, I noticed the Magnoliafied parts of town were starkly different from the rest of the city. Most of the buildings in town are older, and the neighborhoods I saw during my stay weren't full of newly renovated homes. "Fixer Upper" houses often sit next door to properties that haven't been updated in decades. Just down the street from the Silos is "the grease pit," a strip of fast-food restaurants catering to locals, Baylor students, and people stopping off the highway that runs between Dallas and Austin. Magnolia Table, where people wait for hours in line to eat one of Joanna's biscuits, is surrounded by highways.
I also met people who told me the real Waco is getting lost in the Magnolia boom. The new developments have led to gentrification, in large part because of increasing property taxes. Although Waco's overall population and prosperity are increasing, the trends are sloping downward for downtown and East Waco, a historically Black neighborhood where the HBCU Paul Quinn College sat until 1990, according to Waco History.
As stated in the Snapshot Report, Waco's population decreased most in East Waco. East and South Waco also have the lowest median household income in the city. A neighborhood in East Waco had a median household income of $20,781 in 2019, while the wealthiest suburb's median income was $93,318, according to the Snapshot Report. Locals say the development in Waco benefits newcomers rather than longtime residents.
For instance, a Hello Bello (Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard's company) factory opened in Waco in the last year, bringing hundreds of new jobs to the city. But Cuevas Peacock, the associate director of community relations and cultural wealth at Baylor University, told me over coffee that these blue-collar jobs are often going to people newly moving to Waco rather than existing residents.
"Hello Bello recently did open their first US diaper factory in Waco," a representative for Hello Bello said in a statement to Insider when contacted for this story. "The factory's official opening establishes Hello Bello as the only independent diaper company in the US to manufacture their own diapers from design to delivery. The custom, state-of-the-art, 312,000-square-foot integrated facility was brought to life by Waco hometown heroes Chip and Joanna Gaines' Magnolia design team who assisted on general design, staging, and visual merchandising for the space."
Peacock has never seen an episode of "Fixer Upper," and he was curious about what I thought of Waco, correcting me when I referred to it as a small town. "Waco's a small city," he told me with a smile.
Before starting at Baylor, Peacock worked at Grassroots Community Development to advocate for residents and help ensure they are involved in the development of their neighborhoods, rather than being forced to adjust to it when it comes. He told me he and his colleagues worked to intentionally slow down some of the changes happening in Waco so residents don't get left behind — particularly in communities like East Waco, which Cuevas said "were already thriving" before Magnolia moved in.
Other residents feel like some of Waco's charm has faded. Robyn Ritter, a waitress in downtown Waco, told me she can't see the stars at night from her suburban home anymore. She misses them.
I met Ritter for breakfast at World Cup Cafe and Fair Trade Market in North Waco. Open since 2006, the café doubles as a breakfast spot and a marketplace for products made by independent sellers from around the world. It's only an eight-minute drive from the Silos, but the kitschy space felt worlds away from the clean lines of Magnolia.
Ritter has lived in the Waco area on and off for 20 years. Because she works downtown, she deals with tourists constantly, even though she's only been to the Silos once at the behest of her 10-year-old daughter.
"I know how busy of a lunch I'm going to have based on how many tourist buses there are," Ritter told me over a stack of pancakes. She said tourists often ask her where Chip and Joanna live as she serves them. She doesn't tell them.
Ritter lives with her daughter, husband, and mother in a suburb of Waco. Like many other Waco residents, she may soon be forced out of her home because of increasing property taxes. She doesn't want her daughter to have to change schools, and she's frustrated that the positive developments brought by the Gaineses rarely benefit longtime residents like her.
But still, Waco has Ritter's heart and she thinks the Gaineses have done a lot for the city.
"I love Waco," she said. "It's still a great place to live. The growing pains are just harder than I expected."
"Waco isn't Magnolia. It's a town that's really complicated," Ritter added.
Peacock echoed that, saying he hopes that tourists can see that Waco has more to offer than just the Silos and Magnolia Market.
"Come for Chip and Jo, but stay for Waco," he told me.
I could hear the fondness in Ritter and Peacock's voices as they talked about the Waco they know. But I learned fairly quickly that Waco isn't perfect, nor is it for everyone.
Waco is still a poor city; it has a lower median household income and higher poverty rate compared to its peer cities in Texas, which include Amarillo, College Station, and Odessa, according to the 2021 Snapshot Report. The median household income for Waco in 2019 was $40,190; for white residents, that number was $48,915, while it was just $26,464 for Black residents. The report also notes the city is fairly segregated; people of color make up the majority of the population in the city itself, while the surrounding suburbs are mostly white.
Waco — which Ritter says is becoming a go-to destination for "like-minded people" — reminded me of my years at college in a mostly conservative, religious part of Alabama. The Waco Tours ride began with our guides asking us permission to bless the tour, and I heard dozens of "bless yous" and "thank Gods" as I walked through town. A car-service driver who told me I could take my mask off as soon as I got into his car had a camouflage hat embossed with "Joe And The Hoe Must Go" sitting on the dashboard of his truck, seemingly a reference to President Biden and Vice President Harris. When I chose to keep my mask on in another car and mentioned to the driver I lived in New York, he said, "Oh, that explains it."
Waco's religious and conservative nature isn't surprising for a small city in Texas, but it is a stark difference from the vague version of a traditional Southern lifestyle Chip and Joanna give us on "Fixer Upper" and "Fixer Upper: Welcome Home." The closest the Gaineses have come to announcing any political affiliation was in 2021 when they donated $1,000 to Chip's sister Shannon Braun's campaign for a school-board seat in Colleyville, Texas. Braun, who ended up winning the seat, ran on an anti-critical race theory platform, saying it was "the single most divisive threat" to education, as the Dallas Observer reported. Neither Chip and Joanna nor Braun responded to requests for comment when Insider originally reported on the matter.
I was also struck by how openly anti-LGBTQ some people in town were. The driver who picked me up from the airport told me he moved to Waco because the public schools in California were going to "force" his son to learn about homosexuality. It's not the first blatant display of homophobia I'd heard about in Waco. Chip and Joanna came under fire in 2016 after BuzzFeed reported their then-pastor explicitly spoke out against same-sex marriage in 2015.
Chip released a response to the article at the time through a now-unavailable blog post on the Magnolia website, according to Good Housekeeping.
"Joanna and I have personal convictions," the blog post read, according to Good Housekeeping. "One of them is this: we care about you for the simple fact that you are a person, our neighbor on planet earth. It's not about what color your skin is, how much money you have in the bank, your political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender, nationality or faith."
Joanna later seemed to address the accusations in a 2021 article published by The Hollywood Reporter.
"The accusations that get thrown at you, like you're a racist or you don't like people in the LGBTQ community, that's the stuff that really eats my lunch — because it's so far from who we really are," she told The Hollywood Reporter.
Despite the Gaineses' assertions that they are not homophobic, a same-sex couple has never been featured on "Fixer Upper" or "Fixer Upper: Welcome Home." After spending time in town, I found myself wondering if there simply weren't enough LGBTQ people who felt comfortable being out in Waco to allow the Gaineses to film them.
The idea of a Waco catering specifically to "Fixer Upper" fans is likely thrilling for Magnolia lovers or those benefiting from the tourist influx. But there are still huge swaths of Waco's population who feel more out of place than ever because of Chip and Joanna's growth.
My waiter at Balcones Distilling, an award-winning whiskey distillery in town that was actually a fixer-upper when it was bought in 2008, told me he's lived in Waco on and off for most of his adult life. But the city keeps changing, and he feels like the Gaineses "have their thumb in everything."
"Now when I tell people I live in Waco, all they think of is Chip and Joanna," he said. "And it's sad."
Like Ritter, he was frustrated that Magnolia's growth has made his cost of living go up, including an increase in his rent. He doesn't feel like there's much keeping him tethered to the city anymore, and he's thinking about leaving.
Similarly, a college student and waiter at Milo's All Day told me there's barely any nightlife in Waco, leaving him without much to do on the weekends. He likes that Waco's cost of living is low, but he didn't have many other positive things to say about the city. He's planning to move to California as soon as he graduates.
Magnolia will inevitably keep growing. The premiere of "Fixer Upper: Welcome Home" and launch of the Gaineses' Magnolia Network in 2021 and subsequent cable launch in 2022 are only increasing interest in Chip and Joanna's world. And with the Magnolia Hotel opening soon, it's likely more tourists than ever will be drawn to the Silos.
"They run it like an amusement park, so they're always going to have to keep adding to it," the waiter from Balcones told me.
The Waco Tours bus leads you through Cameron Park, a 400-acre swath of land full of hiking trails and scenic overlooks. It's all beautiful, but I was most captivated by the golden bamboo running through the park. It was originally planted to help prevent erosion, but it became invasive, taking over entire slopes of the green space and pushing out some of the native species.
Rather than trying to combat the invasion, Waco seems to have embraced the bamboo. A 2020 video from the Waco Parks and Recreation Department shows a park ranger listing fun facts about the pesky plant, including that the 40-foot bamboo stalks hitting each other on windy days sounds like a wind chime.
"It's really nice to hear when you're out here with your friends and family," the ranger said of the bamboo on the park's walking trails.
So rather than a nuisance or threat, the bamboo has become a way to draw people into the preexisting world of Waco. You head to a trail to check out the bamboo, and you find yourself seeing all of the other unique greenery in the space. It's a win for the city and the plant that is just trying to survive.
One could argue Chip and Joanna can have the same kind of impact on Waco. They already have the resources and platform to draw people to the city, but instead of continuing to create a Waco that is in their vision, they could work with locals to ensure they are showing off and lifting up the parts of town that already shine.
For instance, Magnolia offers itineraries for tourists to help them plan their trips to town. Of the four they provide, only one includes stops at locations that aren't on the Gaineses' property, and they list no restaurants or stores by name that aren't Magnolia-owned or food trucks that sit on the Silos. It could make a world of difference for the local businesses I visited in town to have an endorsement from Magnolia.
The Silos is also, aptly, siloed from the rest of downtown, complete with fences to separate it. Similarly, Magnolia Table sits off of a highway, far away from any other fun things to do in the area. As Chip and Joanna's footprint in Waco continues to grow, they could open their businesses next to local spots, putting tourists in direct proximity to locally owned and operated restaurants and stores.
Waco and Magnolia can coexist and help each other thrive. I heard it from residents time and again. But, at least in the opinion of the locals I spoke to, it will be up to Chip and Joanna if they grow with the community or create their own separate one. Magnolia can be a draw for what survives of the original Waco — or continue on as an invasive species.
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