The Laramie community mourned the 2009 demolition of the Empress Theatre in downtown.
The nearly century old building suffered decades of neglect. In the wake of its deconstruction, only an empty lot remained.
“After it was razed, we came together as a community and said, ‘It is not acceptable to leave this as a hole in the ground,’” said Trey Sherwood, executive director of the Laramie Main Street Alliance.
This summer, downtown Laramie will celebrate the fulfillment of the promise to fill the empty lot with the grand opening of Big Hollow Food Co-op, the anchor tenant of a new mixed-use development.
Big Hollow supports local agriculture and provides healthy food options for downtown residents and the Laramie community. Founded in 2007, the company has more than tripled its membership to 1,600 families and seen annual revenues soar to nearly $2.2 million.
More than 50 vendors sell their products through Big Hollow. The store sold $335,000 worth of local food last year, according to their annual report.
“We were bursting at the seams and looking at a second location,” said Marla Petersen, Big Hollow general manager. “We were worried we were going to have to move out of downtown.”
The new building provides Big Hollow double the space, which will allow for more inventory, new services and more chilled and frozen food storage.
Big Hollow also anticipates increasing its staff of 18 workers to 30 workers and investing $600,000 in the property in the next five years.
The Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency, provided a $3 million grant to assist the project.
“It was a dream team partnership between Big Hollow, the City of Laramie, Laramie Main Street and the Business Council,” Sherwood said. “None of us could individually do this.”
In the years following the demolition of the Empress Theatre, Sherwood did two things above all: listened to the community and watched for an established business ready to grow and expand. Her conversations with the community pointed Laramie Main Street toward Big Hollow.
The co-op met the community’s needs: a growing business that had proven to be a good neighbor and an essential asset to the vibrancy of downtown.
Once Big Hollow was on board, Laramie Main Street formed the community’s vision for the new building into a strategic plan to redevelop the property. Business owners, the City of Laramie and the public all vetted the plan to ensure everyonewas on the same page.
The process gave Laramie Main Street a foundation from which to acquire the property, apply for feasibility studies and identify local and state funding.
“It was all about what we want to look like as a city in 20 years,” Sherwood said.
Big Hollow fit that long-term vision perfectly.
“They’ve got a track record of success and they are well loved in the community,” Sherwood said. “Any time you can go in and meet the person who made your food, it makes for a more personal relationship between the seller and the consumer.”
That personal relationship is evident in the number of customers Petersen said approached her asking how to help Big Hollow make the move.
Not only does Big Hollow ensure area residents have access to a healthy, conveniently located grocery store, but because it focuses on selling locally sourced products, the co-op is providing revenue for growers and producers throughout the region.
“Big Hollow was started by a group of Laramie people who wanted the products from their vibrant farmers markets to be accessible year-round,” Petersen said. “This grocery has created a shift with local growers. We’ve seen more people willing to embrace producing fruits and vegetables or raising hens to supplement their incomes now that they have a year-round outlet for that product.”
Locals feeding locals results in a more resilient community and strengthens Laramie’s economy, Petersen continued.
Ensuring Main Street had a commercial tenant ready to move in made it possible to phase this project. The next step will be building residential units on the second floor.
Downtown housing adds vibrancy to the district, Sherwood explained. Business owners may extend their hours as they see more people downtown later into the evening. And when services like grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants and entertainment are all located close by people tend to walk more. People walking on the street is an indication of a safe neighborhood, which also makes doing business downtown more attractive.
“We believe we’ve been an anchor for the downtown community,” Petersen said. “Customers come get groceries, but then they are more likely to get a cup of coffee or stop by the barber.”
The new Big Hollow building will generate property tax and sales tax to fund local government and basic services without the need for the city to add new infrastructure like roads.
Plus, physically filling a hole downtown aesthetically extends the boundaries of downtown by making it feel like there’s a reason to continue walking to the next block and beyond. Sherwood expects this project to encourage private development further north.
A successful development like this mixed use building also creates trust with local business owners, the community and city officials that Laramie Main Street has the capacity and skills to carry out big projects successfully in the future.
“Thanks to this success, we’re going to see more engaged community members and businesses. That momentum is huge,” Sherwood said.
Sherwood’s biggest takeaway from the multiyear project is to listen closely to what the community wants from a project and take those desires into account when it comes to the form and function of the development.
Laramie Main Street hopes this project can be a blueprint for other Wyoming Main Street communities and Sherwood is eager to lend her expertise as other downtowns look to tackle similar infill construction.