About 50 small business owners, city planners, elected officials and downtown advocates from more than two dozen Wyoming towns recently braved foul May weather to learn about a concept called placemaking from the national experts at nonprofit Project for Public Spaces.
The two-day workshop, held in Douglas, espoused a new perspective on what economic development means in the 21st century.
Economic development in the United States used to mean attracting large companies by offering a vast workforce and access to raw materials. CEOs looked for cheap land and utilities. Workers followed jobs.
Today’s economy is increasingly focused on technology and services. Small firms can spring up anywhere with an internet connection and do business with the rest of the world instantaneously. The change in circumstances means people are now finding places they love first, then tracking down a – or creating their own – job later.
This is an economy in which Wyoming can compete. The Cowboy State is flush with Western culture, friendly communities and epic outdoor recreation.
The cities and towns poised to thrive in today’s economy create lovable places to which people get attached. People attached to a place are more likely to raise families, invest and start businesses there.
Placemaking advocates argue development designed to create safe, welcoming, interesting places for people to gather bolsters a community.
“How do we make places where people want to gather, where they want to linger, where there are things to do – concerts, chess, knitting circles, whatever it may be - where people can enjoy a place by themselves, with friends, with strangers and make connections that attach them to that place,” said Chad Banks, manager of Rock Springs Urban Renewal Agency/Main Street. “The more people you bring to an area, the more others want to be in that area. The more people are there, the better the businesses are going to do.”
It starts with a street corner
Think about your favorite street corner.
It probably has as many or more people than cars milling about. Perhaps there is a bench to sit on and watch folks as they go about their day shopping, finding a bite to eat or playing with their kids in a nearby park. The corner is likely well-lit, easy to find and surrounded by greenery and interesting architecture to enjoy.
It is, in short, a place people want to be. Making more places where people want to be strengthens the sense of community in a town and bolsters the local economy, explains Ethan Kent, senior vice president of Project for Public Spaces.
“Communities of all sizes succeed or fail at the scale of a street corner. When people focus on one single place, one that reflects the values and history and identity of a community, everything else falls into place,” Kent said.
During the workshop, participants soaked in an array of case studies in sprawling metropolises like New York City to tiny, sleepy villages in Montana where creating these kinds of places where people want to be has improved the local economy.
The cadre of Wyomingites also ventured into downtown Douglas to find out what makes the best public places in town work and how to help other areas fulfill their potential.
If there was a revolution in Douglas, most residents would probably gather in Jackalope Square. That, Kent said, was a good sign the square was a successful public space. It means the square is a natural gathering spot and a focal point of the community.
Jackalope Square includes benches, trees and a gazebo where locals hold concerts or exchange vows. It offers easy access to downtown shops, showcases the unique culture of Douglas in the form of a giant jackalope statue and provides views of historic architecture.
Nearby is a vacant lot with a couple tables sitting amongst tall weeds. Graffiti mars one of the brick walls hemming in the lot. Many of the workshop participants saw it as the perfect place for a small park.
They imagined murals, more tables, better landscaping and maybe some lights. It would be a perfect place for people to enjoy a takeout lunch, get together with friends before a movie at the historic Princess Theatre or enjoy acoustic music.
Best of all, it wouldn’t cost much to beautify the space, and it could be a great opportunity to find out what kind of activity the people of Douglas wanted to see happen there. The town could try out a few different ideas on weekends until they found one that resonated with the community.
“I would love to have this in my town to get similar feedback. I think for us to look at a town with a different set of eyes was very valuable. I encourage all communities to look at their towns from different angles and different perspectives,” said Brian Davis, a second generation owner of Home Décor in Evanston. “I do think a lot of people try to think, ‘What’s the biggest thing with the biggest impact? Let’s plan a lot and spend many months on this project,’ but if you do something small and quick that people can see, it can get more people on board.”
Trying out a project can just be a matter of the cost of plywood for bench seating or a few traffic cones to try out a different street arrangement. It can be as temporary as a one-day concert or as permanent as the plaza at Times Square in New York.
“There’s a myth that revitalization projects have to be expensive, big capital projects that are permanent,” Kent said. “The best projects, we find, are often short-term, low-cost projects. The idea is to try things, experiment, find some momentum in the little things. You think big about shaping a community, but you do it baby steps at a time.”
Bringing it home
Workshop attendees have been tasked with returning to their communities to teach local officials and residents about the placemaking process. The next step is to install placemaking projects in each community.
Two towns –Rock Springs and Laramie – are already launching their own versions of the “Power of 10” exercise, used to determine what residents consider the best public spaces where they live and the places with the most potential. Rock Springs’ event begins at 5 p.m. on Monday. Laramie’s event begins at 5:30 p.m. on June 17.
“Wyoming main streets are the hearts of Wyoming and emblems of the talent and passion of the people in this state,” Kent said. “They are going to serve as examples nationally and globally for how to make rural areas thrive and why to live in rural places like this.”
The Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency, will be a resource for people to make placemaking projects happen in their towns.
Wyoming Main Street, a Business Council program, applied for the grant from the National Main Street Center. Wyoming Main Street plans to provide grants to applicants wanting to tackle placemaking in their communities.
There are 19 towns in the Main Street program, which is a state coordinating program of the National Main Street Center, but this grant will be open to all Wyoming communities that participated in the training. The training and future grants will be available soon through the Business Council
“The National Main Street Center’s focus is to help downtowns across America stay vibrant and stay alive,” said Cindy Porter, manager of Douglas Main Street. “The trend was for people to move to the suburbs, and downtowns suffered. That trend is now reversing, and this program is designed to make and keep downtowns healthy, fresh and exciting and keep people engaged and wanting to come downtown.”
Porter pointed to statistics showing Main Street programs across the state contributed to the creation of nearly 280 jobs and 51 new businesses in 2016.
Every dollar of public money invested in those Main Street communities was matched by nearly $7 in private money.
Wyoming main streets have also earned national attention in recent years. Rawlins won the Great American Main Street Award in 2015. Laramie earned an Innovation Award in 2016 for their approach to mural projects.
For more information, email Main Street Program Manager Linda Klinck at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call her at 307-777-2934.
About the Wyoming Business Council: Our mission is to increase Wyoming’s prosperity. We envision a Wyoming where industries are strong, diverse and expanding. Small business is a big deal. Communities have the highest quality of life. Wyoming is the technology center of the High Plains. Wyoming knows no boundaries. Please go to www.wyomingbusiness.org for more information.