Are Waco’s chronic poverty woes a lost cause? Q&A with National Resource Network Executive Director David Eichenthal

Waco, Texas Bill Whitaker The Waco Tribune September 13, 2015 Equity

QuestionHow has your executive team’s first visit to Waco gone?

David Eichenthal:  I think it’s gone exactly as we hoped that it would. The Network had an assessment team in Waco earlier this summer. I was on that. We got a huge amount of information during that visit. We spent a great amount of time with the mayor and other leaders. The challenge for us — and I think it’s a challenge also for Prosper Waco Executive Director, Matthew Polk, and the mayor — is figuring out how to move in a thoughtful but fairly timely way from all the good work that Prosper Waco and the city have already done in setting specific goals to actually figuring out how to help them in implementing strategies. We’ve been trying to get everyone involved in meetings with the Network, the people who are already working on these problems and have great ideas already. We’ve got something like 124 possible areas that we’d like to think about. We’re going to narrow those down substantially to work with the city and Prosper Waco on a series of very targeted work over the course of the next year.

Question:  Think about your visit here this summer when you were conducting this assessment study of Waco. Were there any defining moments that helped you refine and boil down what the challenges are?

David Eichenthal:  I would characterize them as less about challenges, more about opportunities. I’ve spent the last dozen years or so of my life in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is in many ways not so different from Waco. It’s 170,000, two hours from Atlanta and two hours from Nashville and has had economic challenges, though unlike Waco it had gone through a period of significant population decline. The first time we walked around downtown here, we saw this could be something very, very exciting. The presence of Baylor University and the other institutions of higher education is a huge competitive advantage for Waco. One thing for us is figuring out how that can play out so it grows the overall economy and begins to address the academic challenges identified in the goals of Prosper Waco. And it’s going to sound weird and it’s not something that a lot of people might mention, but Lake Waco impressed me a lot — the fact that you have these great natural amenities, and not just the lake but the rivers. There’s just a lot here to work with in terms of beginning to do this sort of work that affects poverty, affects financial security, affects health and affects education.