Casper City Council threw cold water on plans by the new Wonder Bar owners to build a patio for outdoor seating in front of the historic downtown establishment.
Legal questions and skepticism from some Council members about the effect of eliminating parking spaces along Center Street mark the first public pushback against the Cercy family’s plans for developing downtown Casper.
Tony Cercy and his son, Cole, purchased the the Wonder Bar and Poor Boy’s Steakhouse last fall and have since acquired several other downtown properties, including the former Botticelli building on Second Street.
The Cercys also donated $1 million to the construction of David Street Station and have been widely praised for their investment in downtown.
But River Valley Builders project manager Brandon Daigle, who presented the patio plan to City Council on Tuesday on behalf of the Cercys, received notable resistance from several members.
As part of a comprehensive renovation of the Wonder Bar, the Cercys are seeking to build a sidewalk extension in front of the building for outdoor seating. The proposal would do the following:
- Eliminate five diagonal parking places along Center Street;
- provide room for up to 46 Wonder Bar patrons in an outside gated seating area;
- extend the sidewalk to allow pedestrian access around the seating area;
- install two benches for public use outside the seating area;
- place metal bollards along the perimeter of the extended sidewalk to protect pedestrians from passing traffic;
- install four new street lights in front of the Wonder Bar.
“The Cercys are not asking for any money for this,” Daigle said. “They’re asking for a lease on property currently owned by the city.”
Specifically, the Cercys need permission to use the sidewalk and occupy space that is now part of Center Street.
Downtown businesses skeptical
Councilman Bob Hopkins, who attends meetings of the Downtown Casper Business Association, said many merchants were opposed to removing any parking spaces in the area.
“I have a lot of constituents down there who like those parking spaces,” Hopkins said. “I was at the DCBA meeting this morning, and they were pretty vocal about not wanting to do that.”
Daigle acknowledged that a majority of the group did not agree to support the project but said that several individual members were in favor of the patio extension.
He added that the Cercys had reached an agreement with the city to rent 40 spaces in the municipal garage for Wonder Bar patrons.
The Cercys received letters of support from the Downtown Development Authority, the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance and the Casper Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, among others.
Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay was also opposed to the proposal, criticizing the Cercys for not presenting the project themselves and expressing concerns about the family’s growing influence downtown.
“Those who have money and power oftentimes like to use it against those do not,” Huckabay said.
Huckabay was bothered that the Cercys had not received letters of support from the owners of the House of Sushi, which is immediately south of the Wonder Bar, and from representatives of the Wyoming state government, which owns the building on the north side of the bar.
The sidewalk expansion would extend across the entire facade of the House of Sushi.
“That business was there first,” Huckabay said.
Engineer Ryan Altenburg, who designed the sidewalk extension, said that Tony Cercy had sought to speak with the House of Sushi owners but “there’s a communication barrier that wasn’t able to be overcome.”
“Yet,” Daigle added.
Questions about downtown development
City Planner Craig Collins wrote in a memo that Council would have to determine its comfort level with converting a public right-of-way into a private area for the exclusive use of a single business.
“This does not only pose philosophical challenges regarding the sanctity of public property for use by all people of Casper, it poses legal obstacles for the same reason,” Collins wrote.
Municipalities are allowed to “vacate” streets by a vote of City Council only if a majority of property owners within 300 feet of the proposed vacation support the change, said City Attorney Bill Luben.
Luben’s concern was that if Council approved the Cercys’ request, the city would be powerless to stop other business owners in the area from extending the sidewalk in front of their buildings, meaning that downtown parking spaces could start disappearing in large numbers.
“This is a really kind of cool idea, but there are some aspects that really don’t fit Wyoming law,” Luben said.
Collins said that he had proposed converting the space in front of the Wonder Bar into a small public plaza or “parklet,” with plantings and seating available to the public and patrons of nearby businesses including the Wonder Bar.
But that plan was shot down because of a need for Wonder Bar customers to be able to consume alcohol in the outdoor seating area. Seating on a public sidewalk would not be covered by the bar’s liquor license.
Collins said that the question of converting parking spaces into outdoor seating is part of an ongoing debate over how downtown Casper should be developed.
“This proposal is a proxy for a larger conversation in downtown Casper regarding the balance of land uses for automobiles, pedestrians, and public/private space,” Collins wrote. “A comprehensive downtown planning effort to develop standards for parking management and public space is the best approach, long term...”
Laird backs proposal
Despite the skepticism, it wasn’t all bad news for the Cercys.
Councilman Dallas Laird strongly backed the patio proposal, highlighting the Cercys’ significant investments downtown.
“(These) people are putting $4 million into a bar, making it nice, putting money into this town, renting 40 parking spots,” Laird said. “I don’t like telling businessmen ‘no.’”
Laird, an attorney, emphasized the concept of “home rule,” which holds that each level of government has significant autonomy to govern its own jurisdictions. He believes that there would be little legal risk for the city to unilaterally vacate the section of Center Street in front of Wonder Bar.
Laird got into a testy exchange with Councilman Shawn Johnson over whether Council could simply throw its support behind the project.
“We should be trying to make this happen, not stomp it out of existence,” Laird said.
“I don’t think anyone is stomping it out of existence. You say we should run our city however we want, but we also have state law,” Johnson said. “You can’t just say screw the state law and just vacate the street.”
Council asked Daigle to provide letters of support from adjacent businesses before deciding whether to approve the proposal.