After a contentious, three-hour public hearing last Tuesday night, the Casper City Council approved selling two city-owned buildings to local entrepreneurs hoping to bring new apartments and an apparel store to downtown.
City Council was split on the decision, with five members voting to sell the buildings and three voting against.
Shortly after the city received the bids in October, a conference center consortium urged Council to reject the bids because a study revealed the land in question was the best spot to potentially develop a roughly $70 million hotel and conference center.
The buildings, which are located on Ash Street north of Midwest Avenue, include the former Ka-Lark’s gymnastics studio and the former Milo’s Toyota body shop.
After struggling with the decision for a few weeks, Council decided to hold a hearing to let local residents voice their views. City Council chambers were full Tuesday night, with 18 people speaking in favor of accepting the bids, and 3 speaking against selling the properties.
The Downtown Development Authority’s CEO, Kevin Hawley, urged council to have faith in the consortium’s vision for Casper.
The group includes representatives from the Downtown Development Authority, Casper Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Amoco Reuse Agreement Joint Powers Board and the Economic Development Joint Powers Board/Forward Casper.
While developing a hotel and conference center may sound overly ambitious, Hawley said the David Street Station — a public downtown plaza — was also a controversial project prior to its construction.
“Everything we said we were going to do with the David Street Station, we’ve done,” he said.
Given that the plaza recently opened and is not yet complete, the CEO also explained that it’s difficult to currently determine the value of the Ash Street buildings, which are located nearby.
But the majority of those who spoke Tuesday night encouraged Council to accept the bids.
Doing so would send a message that the city supports the “energy and creativity” of local entrepreneurs, said William Conte, a professor at Casper College who attended the hearing with about a dozen of his students.
Others expressed concerns that the large facility would negatively alter the landscape, dramatically increase downtown’s traffic and take away needed business from other local hotels.
Multiple speakers said they supported the idea of developing a hotel and conference center, but felt the group should pick another location because they want the historic Ash Street buildings to be preserved.
The consortium also analyzed two other potential sites, including a Platte River Commons property and an area just west of the downtown core owned by Casper Redevelopment Corporation and the Natrona County Public Library Foundation. A study concluded that these locations were less desirable because they are further away from the city’s center and would therefore generate less foot traffic downtown.
After listening to residents, Councilman Bob Hopkins said he firmly supported accepting the bids. The consortium told Council at a Dec. 12 meeting that they could present a concrete financial plan in six months, but Hopkins wasn’t convinced.
“The idea of having numbers together in six months is a myth,” he said Tuesday.
Councilman Shawn Johnson, who pointed out at a meeting earlier this month that previous plans for a hotel and conference center never panned out, said Tuesday that he agreed with Hopkins.
Although he stated that the conference center sounded like a long shot, Councilman Charlie Powell said he was still voting to reject the bids because the facility could have a huge impact on Casper.
“I don’t want to take any action that reduces the likelihood of having that facility built,” he said.
Explaining that the request for proposal process was “flawed,” Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco said he was also rejecting the bids.
“There are many unknowns,” he said.
Ultimately, Mayor Kenyne Humphrey and council members Dallas Laird, Shawn Johnson, Bob Hopkins and Chris Walsh voted to approve the bids. Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco and councilmen Jesse Morgan and Charlie Powell voted against them. Council member Amanda Huckabay was absent.
“I didn’t feel we were going to get it, so yeah, it’s a surprise,” said David Kelley, who won the bid for the former body shop. The owner of Ashby Construction intends to use the building as office space for his own business and will then build three buildings next to it to rent out as apartments.
Scott Cotton, a co-owner of 1890 Inc., won the bid for the former gymnastic studio. Cotton previously explained that his custom apparel store needs a larger space to meet customer demands.
The buildings were part of the Plains Furniture property block, which also included a former livery stable that has not yet received a bid. City officials purchased the properties in early 2016 with no exact plans for their use.
Brandon Daigle, the chairman of the Downtown Development Authority, confirmed Wednesday that the consortium will continue on with their plans to bring a conference center to Casper using one of the other potential sites.