It was a crazy idea. Everyone told her so. But Pam Thayer, the executive director of the Rawlins Downtown Development Authority/Main Street, had a vision back in 2010.
Downtown Rawlins needed a facelift. Many storefronts were structurally questionable, crumbling or lacked any curb appeal.
“It made the district look rather rundown and tired; not the vibrant, booming downtown that keeps shoppers and their dollars local,” Thayer said.
Because the state cannot grant money directly to business owners, Thayer envisioned a sweeping façade project whereby the city would seek temporary short-term easements from downtown property owners to temporarily own the front three feet of their storefronts. Doing so would allow the state to grant money to the city to spruce up the properties. And after a few years, the easements would expire, returning the storefronts back to the property owners.
While the logistics of working with dozens of property owners, plus city staff, contractors, architects, construction managers, and state and federal grant managers seemed overwhelming to everyone she told about her idea, Thayer wasn’t deterred.
“I could just picture what this type of broad-stroke approach could do to create momentum in the downtown district,” she said. “And I knew – or, I hoped – it would be worth it in the end.”
After completing a feasibility study for the project in 2010, Rawlins DDA/Main Street began applying for state and federal grants on behalf of downtown Rawlins. The city of Rawlins was awarded a total of $1.5 million in grant funding, and the façade program required participating property owners to match 10 percent of the cost of the work to be done.
Thayer began recruiting property owners to the project. Although they had to work in the Downtown design guidelines and building codes, and comply with the terms of the grant, participating property owners got an upgraded façade for only 10 percent of what they’d have to pay on their own.
Ultimately, 36 of the 63 property owners in the 12-block district chose to participate in the program.
Over the next several years, the façade team worked with each of those 36 property owners to grant the temporary easements, agree on the scope of work and design their new storefronts. And the team worked with architects and contractors and construction managers; all the while, submitting the required grant reports and paperwork.
Some properties needed only minor or superficial improvements – new paint, a few repaired bricks, etc. Others needed major structural repairs to prevent the building from crumbling. The team followed historic preservation best practices, which sometimes meant important but less noticeable fixes such as roof and window repairs – issues that needed to be addressed, but that didn’t necessarily improve curb appeal, making property owners hesitant to spend money on them.
Stephanie and Joshua Kramer own Shogunz Pizzeria and Bar in downtown Rawlins and participated in the façade project.
“It was worth every investment,” Stephanie Kramer said of the project. “Our downtown is just phenomenal now.”
The project meant repaired bricks, a new front door, new front windows, new awnings, new exterior lighting and fresh paint for Shogunz.
“Our windows leaked horribly, and we’d get ice on the walls inside during really cold days,” Stephanie Kramer said.
It was a problem, but it wasn’t something they were prepared to fix right away, she said. The façade project allowed them to do so, and prompted them to complete several other remodeling projects inside.
“It’s much brighter and inviting now, and I do think it has increased our business,” Stephanie Kramer said. “Our property value has increased significantly, and it will be fun to see how much our heating bill changes over the next few winters, too.”
Rose Cain is the owner of the Strand Theater, and also participated in the façade project. Although the fixes to the Strand’s facade aren’t easily apparent to the average passerby, they were important to the structure of the historic building. The repairs also allow the potential for small retail tenants to occupy some of the space while renovations continue inside the building.
“There’s about $180,000 invested into the building now,” Cain said. “This grant to repair the façade helped tremendously,” Cain said.
In the future, Cain’s plans for the Strand include a bar, live shows and movies, plus a lot of increased foot traffic and vitality in downtown Rawlins.
As Thayer hoped, the façade project has been worth the effort, she said.
Sometimes, the project seemed to hit immovable walls, like when Thayer had navigated the feasibility study and the granting process, coaxed property owners on board and designed the new facades; and then she couldn’t find any contractors to bid on such a complex project.
With their eyes on the big picture and plenty of patience, Thayer and the Rawlins community worked through the many bumps in the road during the last six years. The final windows were installed, and the last layers of paint dried in early 2019.
As expected, the project did receive some criticism. Thayer said people often ask why the grant money wasn’t used to fully restore a few landmarks, rather than making relatively minor improvements to many buildings.
“The intention was always to sprinkle the grant money throughout the whole district,” she said. “We wanted to help as many business owners as we could and get the most use out of those dollars as possible.”
In the end, the property owners ended up investing significantly more than the 10 percent they were required to contribute. Thayer attributes an additional $3.25 million in private investment downtown directly to the façade program.
The greater Rawlins community is seeing the value of its downtown and investing in it, too, Thayer said. A $10 million Carbon County Musuem project is currently underway, and voters will likely pass a sixth-penny project to restore the Carbon County Courthouse, which will be another $25 million investment in downtown.
“Often, communities see their courthouses or museums abandon their old downtown buildings and rebuild elsewhere,” Thayer said. “But Rawlins is committed to and investing in its downtown, and this project helped create that momentum.