Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Casper Wyoming Plaza?

As reported this past week in the Tribune and in an article in the Journal, the Casper city counsel has given provisional approval to dedicating $3,000,000 in One Cent Tax money towards a West Yellowstone Street Plaza, part of a long focus the city has had on the "Old Yellowstone District".

The location where the proposed plaza would go. The building formerly housed a taxidermy shop, but has been a day care now for many years.  Fire Station No 1 can be seen in the left hand portion of the photograph.

We have quite a few photos up of buildings on West Yellowstone, which has improved remarkably over the years.  Once a busy business district where the Yellowstone Highway ran through Casper, when the highway was diverted to bypass the area entirely, the are began to decline.  It's worthy noting that the district was also just off of the Sandbar, which was Casper's red light district for decades.  It's tough for an area bordering a red light district not to decay, and while some businesses held on (quite a few actually) the area did decay, undoubtedly.


In recent years, however, it's recovered remarkably, although there are still empty buildings on the street.  Part of this reflected the slow process that was commenced with the urban renewal project that converted the Sandbar from a red light district into a business and housing district, thereby taking out, really, part of the draw towards dissipation that existed.  People oddly sort of fondly remember the Sandbar now, but in truth it was a rough, dirty district that needed to go.  But that project, it should be noted, started in the 1970s before the collapse of the 1980s, so that isn't solely responsible for the change.

 Unoccupied Coca Cola Bottling Plant on West Yellowstone. Since this photo was taken a couple of years ago, the adjoining building is now occupied and there is a "For Rent" sign on the main part of this building.

The area received a big boost when the local movie theater company put in the Iris, a several screen modern theater.  That people down into the district at night, as those boosting the Old Yellowstone concept have sought to do.  Unfortunately, however, that theater just closed, as the owners shut it down in favor of a newer larger theater on the edge of town.

The Iris, the newest of the downtown theaters, but one which is now closed as the owners are opening a new bigger theater on the west side of town.

That location, when the news developed that the the theater would close, was boosted for awhile as the potential location for a convention center.  However, that met with quite a bit of opposition, as a convention center funded with public funds cut against private interests and struck the nerve of the same libertarian and semi libertarian impulses that has given a lot of local bond issues trouble in recent years (and which defeated the Swimming Pool Bond last year).  The convention center is going forward anyhow, but not in this location. Rather, it's going in at the Three Crowns Golf Course complex, which is the location of the former Standard Oil Refinery. The refinery was once an economic hub of the city but it closed in the 1980s, very much hurting the city in the process.  When the ground was reclaimed, it was turned into a golf course and a water park and so has taken on a much different character in recent years.  The Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission is also located there.  Now the convention center, which is not far from the Old Yellowstone District, will be as well.  Indeed the Yellowstone Highway ran right past the refinery.

I really backed the Swimming Pool Bond issue, but on this one, I'm very skeptical.  I'm afraid that the convention center didn't make much sense to me, particularly as Casper College is serving that function now and hotels that also do that, it seems to me, would take a hit at public expense.  I guess the thesis is that a convention center attracts business, and therefore creates it, and all benefit.

Old Skelly gas station, West Yellowstone.

The same arguments are more or less advanced for the plaza.

The concept, apparently, is to have something combining the functions of a park (sort of) with a center for events.  According to the journal it was stated that:
“We’re thinking 5,000 and 6,000. It depends on how much hard and soft scape you end up putting in,” Daigle said. “A component of it is we want this to bleed out into the streets, so the street between us and the Iris (Theater) becomes part of the streetscape on festivals and things like that. It can accommodate more than just the footprint, hopefully...”

Pretty ambitious.

The article noted that the intent is to run the operation as a non profit business:
The council was told that the plaza would be run as a separate, nonprofit business, in the hope that it would be able to cover its own expenses.
“Operationally, we have set up a 501-(c)3 with the state, and this will be operated as its own entity. The Downtown Development Authority will not operate this. We will obviously have a working relationship with this plaza, but this is something that will have its own set of board members, and it will function as its own entity,” Daigle said. “The entity will manage, maintain and operate, with an independent staff and executive director, and funds will be supported by an endowment, private investments and other fundraising opportunities. There will also be revenue from events and the ice-skating rink in the wintertime, so there will be revenue coming in to support that. The intent is this is a self-sustaining business model. So, this is not something that we will come back to the city to ask for additional support once it is in place.”
Further in that vein, Hawley told the council the plaza would essentially be for events.

While I've used the term "park" above, the backers discourage this association:

“It’s important to note that this is not a park space. This isn’t another park. This is not a place for a kid to go and smoke cigarettes, and skateboard, and get into trouble,” Hawley said. “This is truly about events, and that’s why in all the language we put out, you’ll see ‘events driven public plaza.’ Everyone we talked to, whether they built a plaza, they managed a plaza or they’re a consultant, they said, ‘Yeah, it’s important to make this thing beautiful.' You’ve got to have that ‘wow’ factor. You’ve got to have the aesthetics, but it’s really just as important — if not more — how you manage it. You’ve got to have those events, whether it’s a Tuesday in February or a Tuesday in July, you need to know that something is going on at this place.
This idea leans on a similar feature of the downtown of Rapid City, South Dakota, apparently. That's interesting in and of itself, as usually plans for this street cite the example of "old town" Fort Collins, Fort Collins vibrant, and indeed overcrowded, downtown area. The general thought is, of course, that if we build such features, our downtown will be as vibrant as Fort Collins' is, or as Rapid City's seems to be.

Well, maybe.  But views of this type tend to cut against, in some ways, the current economic realities that are going on in Wyoming, in which we're seeing a collapse of the petroleum economy. Indeed, projects of this type bear a frightening resemblance to our reaction to such things in times past, and we've endured them again and again, as the instinct is always to deny that such an event is occurring.  It's widely acknowledged that we're experiencing a big downturn in the state in tax revenues, and there's no reason to believe that this isn't going to happen in this area of the state, other than we simply refuse to believe that it is so. So, the belief goes on that we'll be exempt, that the local economy isn't oil dominated, and that things have changed for us.  That's doubtful in my view, although we'll soon know.  The petroleum industry, or rather the minerals industry, remains one of Wyoming's three main employers and the most economically powerful and significant one.  The other two are agriculture and tourism.  Agriculture and tourism are important, but they can't make up the loss in dollars or employment that are being lost in the petroleum downturn.  Not that they couldn't make up some of that ground, but it doesn't seem that anything is being done (certainly not in agriculture) that's specifically aimed in a likely effective fashion.

Remodeled Fire Station No. 1, on edge of what would be the intended plaza.

So what, might be a logical reply here.  This district is undoubtedly undergoing a renewal and is much nicer than it was even a few years ago. So this would enhance that, right?

Garages on West Yellowstone.  This scene has changed somewhat since I took this photo a few years ago. The building on the left with the green shades is currently undergoing renovations.  Indeed, in just a few years since this blog was started, quite a bit has occurred on this street.

It really might, but then some consideration of the former impacts of city involvement, and just the nature of the city, and its economy, might be in order.

For one thing, consider again the example of Fort Collins.  It's a larger city, and always has been.  And it never operated to discourage business from being anchored downtown.  While Fort Collins has malls and big box stores, and the like, they're actually pretty much all on the same city street as the main street for "old town" Fort Collins.  That kept old town from really sinking too low, although it did have its period of decline.  Still, one of the really remarkable things about Fort Collins is that once you enter the business district on the edge of the town, on the main through street, it just keeps on keeping on until you are completely through the street. Fort Collins has one long market street, but that keeps anything on that street from really being outside of the business district.

Horse drawn carriage in Old Town Fort Collins.

In contrast, Casper encouraged business to move "out east" during the 1970s when it followed the chain of retail stores on Second Street out to the city limits and encouraged the development of the Eastridge Mall.  Warned at the time that this would hurt downtown businesses, it did just that.  Some businesses located downtown, including ones that had been in business for decades, ended up closing, a fairly typical city story.  Casper has still followed that pattern, however, and lots of new businesses continue to spring up on the east side, and now on the west side, where the new movie theater is located.  Downtown, with relatively constricted room (but with some room to expand, due to closed businesses) has to contend with that.  And that's essentially a development pattern the city encouraged and which is now firmly entrenched.  This is not a criticism of that fact, but rather a statement of a fact.  Preventing this pattern of development would have had to occur in the 1970s, so that ship has really sailed.  Fort Collins stands as an example of how things could have been done differently.

The Yellowstone Garage, a business available for events on Yellowstone, and which is in the former location of past car dealerships.  The last dealership in this building, which also occupied a lot across the street, relocated to the east side of Casper shortly after the mall was built there.

Additionally, plans like this tend to ignore the history of public spaces in Casper, and perhaps in Wyoming in general.

While I've been remiss in photographing it, an existing park in Casper would appear to already match the description of what's being aimed at here in terms of using space, that being Casper's Washington Park.  An old city park, with a vast amount of room, the park features a swimming pool, baseball fields, and a band shell. The band shell is in fact used by the city band.  It would see, therefore, to be well suited for performing space, but it is in an urban neighborhood and always has been, which presumably doesn't quite match what is planned here, and of course which would do nothing for downtown, but it is there.

Additionally, Casper's had at least two "plazas" in the form of traditional city squares, which it's operated to make irrelevant over time.  The earliest version of one was the small city square that was backed by the original city courthouse.  When the second county courthouse was built during the Great Depression, that feature became a more or less marooned tiny park, which still remains, but which served very little function.  Traffic really prevents it having any use, other than a place for demonstrators to gather on rare occasion.  A second park, dedicated to veterans, also off of downtown, serves mostly to be a large traffic island.  Of course, that park would never have been ideal for this sort of thing as it is not only very small, but a railroad line used to run through it.

Two additional downtown parks exist, one with better facilities than the other, but no such alterations are planned for them and they are, moreover, sufficiently far from Yellowstone as to be of no value in the Old Yellowstone District project.  The point is, however, that we seemingly haven't done a really good job with such public space in the past, and its easy to imagine not doing very well with it here, particularly if the economy is set to retract.

And there remains the question of other public needs.  The swimming pool lost to the NCHS renovations needs to be replaced, bond failure or not.  Soon the surviving swimming pool at KWHS will need renovation soon.  Both of these will have to be funding in another matter, perhaps (although I don't know that 1 Cent money can't be used for that).  The Natrona County Public Library also needs to be replaced, and the bill for that is appearing to grow.  In a contracting economy, the extent to which all these things can be funded remains open to question.

None the less, it appears we're sort of limping forwards with this plan.  The support form the council was really only lukewarm.  And if it is built, and isn't used much, that's a problem, but not a huge one probably.

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