The recent revival of downtown Casper is a testament to the power of public-private partnerships.
In 2013, a few simple projects funded by Wyoming Business Council grants – infrastructure improvements, a line of attractive street lamps, a few benches, some pretty planters and upgraded pedestrian lanes – were some of the earliest investments in the Old Yellowstone District, a somewhat neglected, rarely visited area of downtown.
Despite being relatively small changes in a city the size of Casper, the projects kicked off a series of public and private investments that have breathed new life into downtown Casper for both businesses and residents.
In 2012, the city of Casper purchased the long-vacant, 100-some-year-old former Pacific Fruit & Produce Company in downtown Casper. In 2014, the city leased a portion of that building to the Casper Artists’ Guild to renovate into an art hub called Art 321.
It was a questionable move by the city, according to a 2014 article in the Casper Star Tribune.
“When governmental entities get involved in purchasing property for redevelopment, it gets controversial, and there are different views on that,” Vice Mayor Charlie Powell was quoted. “But this is a case where that old fruit warehouse would stay and be an old fruit warehouse for who knows how many years had we not purchased it and marketed it the way we did.”
Diane Harrop, the executive director of Art 321, recalled the uncertainty of that time. The Guild was moving into a “seedier area of downtown,” she said, among mostly industrial buildings and without much foot traffic. The move was built on public trust and “a huge collective leap of faith by volunteers and donors,” she said.
The Business Council-funded projects – the streetlamps, planters, restrooms, etc. along Yellowstone – allowed the Casper Artists’ Guild board to envision a future for art walks and additional foot traffic in the area, and paint that picture for the fundraising efforts underway to supplement the purchase of the building and its future operational needs.
“Those projects may have been rather small in the grand scheme of things, but they really set the stage for the success of Art 321,” Harrop said.
A few months later, local developers purchased the other part of the old fruit warehouse, seeing the potential in the downtown area and envisioning a bar and restaurant.
Fast forward to today, and that portion is now a chic liquor store, bar and local-favorite pizza parlor, bringing foot traffic that’s crucial to nearly any downtown business.
In 2015 and 2017, the Business Council awarded money toward the construction of the David Street Station Plaza, a 47,000 square-foot year-round space for public events in the Old Yellowstone District.
Last summer, the plaza was fully open and operational, hosting multiple well-attended events each week. It includes a child-friendly splash pad and an ice skating rink.
Several private businesses have opened within a few blocks since then, including the Yellowstone Garage Bar, the Gaslight Social and Frontier Brewing Company.
The more reasons and options for people to come downtown, the better the business climate, said Shawn Houck, a partner for Frontier Brewing.
“We’re happy to be where we are, and we’re happy to see the area continuing to grow,” he said.
Houck is also a lifelong Casper resident and the owner of Adbay, an advertising agency he opened in downtown Casper 19 years ago. He relocated Adbay to the Old Yellowstone District in 2013.
“Downtown has seen a resurgence from rock-bottom in the 1980s to now, with the David Street Station bringing people and businesses back downtown,” he said.
However, that resurgence also brings more business competition downtown.
“It will be interesting to see if the community will continue to support more and more businesses moving downtown,” he said. “We’re optimistic. And the new state office complex will likely have a real positive impact.”
Currently, construction on a 111,000 square-foot, three-story state office building is underway in downtown Casper. The $45 million project – money that will come from the permanent mineral trust fund – will consolidate several state departments around town, including the departments of Workforce Services, Family Services and Environmental Quality. It will provide offices for about 350 to 400 employees.
In addition to improving efficiency by consolidating the offices, Casper officials believe it will create a boon for downtown businesses, as well.
“We anticipate that the downtown will see a pretty regular stream of business activity that maybe they haven’t had right outside their doors before,” said City Manager Carter Napier. “We think it will have a pretty positive business impact for the central part of our community.”
The building will be located on an 11-acre plot at 444 West Collins Dr., about a block west of Ash Street, directly across the street from what used to be Karen and Jim’s bar, which opened in 2004.
When Jim Kanelos heard the plans to construct the large office building next door to his bar, he invested about $1 million into an upscale remodel – adding neutral décor, lots of windows and an outdoor patio – to cater to the state employees. That remodel was finished in May 2017 and the bar opened under a new name: The Office Bar and Grill.
“Being right next door to that building was just a dream come true,” he said. “That’s a built-in lunch and happy-hour crowd.”
He’s pleased to see the entire downtown area becoming the heart of the community again, he said.
“We upgraded, and we’re excited to see our surroundings getting updated as well,” he said. “It’s nice to see all these new businesses come down here. I think downtown has a little bit of everything for everybody now.”