CASPER, Wyo. — Casper Councilwoman Kenyne Schlager said she was unconvinced the first time someone proposed a downtown public plaza.
“I was just a flat-out no, it’s a waste of money; it’s something we don’t need,” she said.
Then the Downtown Development Authority, a board made up of downtown property owners, spelled out its vision at a City Council work session.
The Development Authority pictured a 47,000-square-foot public space at Second and David streets, which would serve as a bridge between the Old Yellowstone District and downtown.
A steady stream of year-round activities ranging from concerts to farmers’ markets, and even an ice rink in the winter, would bring people to the city’s core for entertainment and shopping.
Her interest piqued, Schlager joined about a dozen downtown and economic development advocates, as well as city officials, to see firsthand Main Street Square — the Rapid City, South Dakota, plaza that the Development Authority is modeling many of its ideas after.
“I saw life and vibrancy,” Schlager said. “What really clicked with me is, you don’t have to have a chain store or big box something to bring people downtown. What we need is a fun space … we need events to keep people coming down.”
The Casper tourists visited with local shopkeepers, city officials and members of the nonprofit that runs the plaza on Friday during a one-day trip to Rapid City.
Schlager said the plaza was in use the entire time the group was there, starting with kids playing in a splash park while parents watched from a grassy lawn in the afternoon to an evening filled with music and a diverse array of concertgoers.
Casper Vice Mayor Charlie Powell said Rapid City, population 70,000, isn’t that different from Casper.
“(The plaza is) a good thing. It really changed the character of that town,” Powell said. “It’s been an economic boost not only to downtown but to the city.”
Powell thinks Casper could experience the same boost, but he acknowledged the city faces a long road.
He anticipates some people will be concerned that too much focus on downtown vitality will take business from other parts of the city. Powell said he did his best to talk to business owners on the outskirts of Rapid City during his visit and found little evidence the plaza had been anything but a boost to the entire city.
Before officials can gauge public opinion, the Development Authority has to solidify a plan and develop a budget. The original timeline called for the organization to finish that process in July with an eye toward beginning a grant application to the Wyoming Business Council ahead of a March 2015 submission.
Then the council has to gauge how serious it is about committing to the project and at what level.
“The Downtown Authority needs to take the lead on this initially,” Powell said. “(They) could develop into an entity that could create and oversee the plaza. I don’t really see that as an appropriate role for the city.”
Rapid City merely leases the land, Powell said, while a nonprofit runs it. It took a private developer willing to invest in the major undertaking to get things moving in Rapid City, and Powell hopes the Development Authority can find that private investment for Casper.
Ultimately, the public needs to support the project, Powell said.
“What was most impressive was talking to people who were dead set against this plaza,” Powell said. “A lot of people who thought it was a waste of money have now come around to saying this is the best thing that has ever happened to Rapid City.”
Some of the pieces that need to fall into place are not in the hands of downtown advocates, city officials or private developers. A state-owned building that houses overflow Wyoming Workforce Services offices currently occupies the corner of Second and David streets, which Development Authority officials have labeled the ideal location for the project.
The office building is one of four Workforce Services facilities spread throughout the city. In July 2013, the state’s Construction Management office began investigating the possibility of combining all the staff into one new building.
The current structures are aging and have maintenance concerns, according to Ian Catellier, project manager with the Construction Management office.
The Legislature would have to approve the project, which wouldn’t happen until the end of the session in March 2015.
City officials aren’t dissuaded, and since the design of the plaza isn’t even tentatively scheduled to begin until November 2015, they aren’t concerned, either.
“To see it in person, the different people there, the restaurants, the atmosphere — you can’t describe it, you have to see it in person,” Schlager said. “If [that location] is not an option, we’ll find something else acceptable and go from there.”