A colorful mural welcomes downtown visitors. Images of local landmarks fill outlines of the letters spelling Rock Springs.

A painted landscape stretches 126 feet across another downtown wall, brightening a vacant city building. More than two dozen paintings fill a lighted pedestrian underpass that once was a dark tunnel. A child gazes from under his lifted cowboy hat on the back of a building. Wyoming wildlife roam across other walls.

Rock Springs is growing more colorful with an initiative to add public art through the downtown area. The heart of the city also is home to a growing scene of performers who often play in restored historic buildings. Sixteen new businesses also have opened downtown, according to the downtown’s 2016 annual report.

Rock Springs Main Street is now a top-10 finalist for the 2018 Great American Main Street Award from the National Main Street Center, which recognizes communities for revitalizing and preserving their downtowns or neighborhood business districts, according to an announcement from the Rock Springs Main Street/Urban Renewal Agency.

The semi-finalists were chosen by a national jury for exemplifying the Main Street approach “to transform traditional downtowns and neighborhood districts,” according to the release.

The Rock Springs Main Street/Urban Renewal Agency, along with its volunteers and support from the community, energize the growing cultural and business activity of the city center, said Chad Banks, manager of the city agency leading the revitalization.

“I think there’s sort of a really renewed sense of excitement and interest downtown and a renewed energy about what’s happening downtown,” Banks said.

Thriving culture

Culture plays a leading role in Rock Springs’ transformation. Downtown venues now host a variety of local and out-of-town performers amid the public art displays.

“So it really is a hub of arts and culture in the community,” Banks said. “The mural project just reinforced visual arts in the downtown.”

The mural effort started in 2014 with a commissioned piece reflecting the local landscape along the side of an abandoned city building. Then the agency spearheaded the Art Underground Gallery inside the pedestrian underpass below the railroad tracks.

“For a long time, it was dark and not really well-travelled and not a place a lot of people wanted to go,” Banks said.

A fresh coat of paint, new lighting and 25 local artists who donated their talent transformed the space about two years ago into a popular walkway gallery filled with paintings, he said.

The people of Rock Springs now take pride in the space.

“People continue to try to pick things up in there, and they don’t allow trash to accumulate and so forth,” Banks said.

The city next hired a spray-paint artist for the 2016 summer fair to paint the now popular young cowboy mural, titled “Ambition Within.” The Rock Springs Main Street/Urban Renewal Agency’s Kickstarter campaign goal to raise $7,500 for more murals last year pulled in more than $19,000 and provided four more public art pieces.

This year’s goal is to raise $15,000 by the end of this month for another round of murals, according to an announcement from the city. Organizers are encouraging more submissions from local artists with projects including a planned series of small murals.

Two refurbished historic structures have been key to the downtown revitalization. The century-old refurbished Freight Station opened about two and half years ago as the Rock Springs Main Street/Urban Renewal Agency headquarters and visitors center. The building also houses the sizeable Bunning Hall events space. The 1948 Broadway Theater was restored about three years before the station, Banks said.

The two renovated spaces brought nearly 15,000 people to downtown last year, Banks said.

A community theater also contributes to the scene, along with the city’s fine arts center and the Rock Springs Historical Museum, Banks said.

Record-breaking downtown events last year included a car show with more than 120 entries, a blues music and brews event that netted more than $20,000 for downtown property owners and businesses and a new art walk, according to a 2016 report. The city center draws local and well-known traveling acts — from Jackson’s Bar J Wranglers to the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Banks said.

The latest options on a growing community calendar also include a monthly outdoor concert series that expanded last summer into weekly shows and the Broadway Theater’s “Live in the Lobby” series spotlighting local talent, Banks said.

Highlighting and supporting the arts is a major part of in the Main Street/Urban Renewal Agency’s transformation strategies for downtown Rock Springs, Banks said.

The Wyoming Business Council’s Wyoming Main Street program recognized Rock Springs in 2016 with its Innovation Award for the Art Underground Gallery. Banks earned the council’s Leadership Award.

Wyoming Main Street Program manager Linda Klinck pointed to the city’s diverse arts and culture downtown as a crucial part of the community’s economic development, upon which the state and national Main Street approach is based.

Downtowns are important for creating a first impression and recruiting other businesses to the area, she said. Rock Springs is among communities taking those steps through the Main Street program to better its quality of life and economics.

“It’s not fluff,” Klinck said. “Yeah, you do those things, but ultimately it’s about increasing the economics of the downtown districts.”

Boosting business

A thriving downtown is crucial to economic vitality, Banks said. With retail facing increasing challenges from the growth of online shopping, the Rock Springs Main Street/URA is working to entice visitors and business to the area.

“Making our downtown unique in a way that attracts people and arts and culture is one of the ways that we’re trying to do that,” Banks said.

Downtown grew by 16 new businesses and 15.5 jobs in 2016, according to the downtown report.

Numbers available for six of the last seven years show Rock Springs has added 137 jobs, 45 business and received more than 25,000 of volunteer hours and an investment of more than $24 million in new and renovated public improvements, Klinck said, listing numbers submitted for the national Main Street award.

“Having looked at their numbers over the last several years and what has happened in their community, you can see quite a great improvement,” she added. “So they’re very well positioned to be recognized for this award, and we hope for the best.”

A growing Latino population is a major part of the downtown cultural and economic expansion, Banks said. The agency coordinated with the National Main Street Center last fall for an expert to consult with Latino business owners about growing their operations, he said. The Rock Springs Main Street/URA also organized an event for showcase their businesses.

“Especially for a community of our size, it definitely adds to the diversity here in our community,” he added.

That effort partners well with Rock Springs’ heritage as a multicultural community, Banks said. The town in its early days was dubbed “the home of 56 nationalities,” as immigrants arrived to work in the mines and eventually the railroad, Banks said.

Many longtime businesses also add to the culture and economics of the downtown, Banks said. The Bitter Creek Brewery recently celebrated 20 years, and the Bi-Rite has operated for generations and has adapted from a pharmacy into three small shops with a lunch counter, he said.

The Rock Springs Main Street/Urban Renewal Agency still has work to do, Banks said. Its current projects include reinventing a community garden space into Chinese-style garden, adding parking and access to Bunning Park and turning a vacant downtown lot into the Fifth Street Plaza with a miniature golf course, Banks said.

Community changes

The community has embraced the changes in Rock Springs, Banks said. Donations to the mural program nearly tripled the fundraising goal, for instance.

“I think it shows that people really want to see that downtown, that people appreciate the arts and culture in our community,” Banks said. “They appreciate the opportunity to see something that maybe is different, to add some vibrant color and life to downtown.”

Crowds have turned out for the concerts, art walk and other downtown events as well, he added.

“The response to all of those things really has been tremendous,” Banks said. “I think people are responding and showing us, by showing up — by kind of feet in the streets — that those are the kinds of things that they enjoy and want to see more of.”

The Rock Springs Main Street/URA also depends on a large volunteer effort, Banks said.

“When we see the volunteers willing to put in time and effort, and a lot of opportunities where they put in their financial resources to make things happen, that in turn energizes our program,” he said.

Banks grew up in Rock Springs as the fifth local generation of his family. He’s been the manager of the Rock Springs Main Street/Urban Renewal Agency for the past four years and has sat on the City Council since 2003. His hometown is a passion for him, he said.

He is pleased with the growth he’s seen in the community. Rock Springs decades ago had a reputation as a rougher place, but that perception is going away.

“It’s nice to start seeing that change, and the impression that people have about Rock Springs to change into what we are and who we are now,” Banks said. “We’re a great growing, thriving community that’s important to Wyoming’s economy and important to the region’s economy.”

Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @erconner

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