Generation Casper

Pedestrians and vehicles come and go on an August 2016 afternoon in the Old Yellowstone District on the west edge of Casper’s downtown.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

What will Casper look like in 15 years? That’s the question the city has set out to answer as it updates its comprehensive land use plan.

The city planning department has been soliciting public feedback since June under the banner “Generation Casper” and hopes to have a new plan completed by the summer.

Head city planner Craig Collins said that while a land use plan should be updated every five to 10 years, Casper is still relying on a document produced 16 years ago.

“It really needed to be done,” Collins said.

While sometimes buried in bureaucratic jargon, comprehensive land use plans are one of the most tangible expressions of how local government affects the daily lives of residents. Individual planning decisions are approved on a case-by-case basis, while the comprehensive plan outlines development priorities and big-picture goals.

At a public feedback session held this month at Imitate the Image Church, residents had a chance to outline their visions for a future Casper.

“I want to see more stuff done with north Casper,” said Rev. William Pierce. “Come up with some ideas — walkways, splash pads, parks.”

Pierce and the assembled crowd of a couple of dozen residents wrote their ideas on large notepads and used markers to draw on huge maps of the city, highlighting where they wanted to see change.

On hand to listen and facilitate the discussion were Collins, fellow Casper city planner Aaron Kloke and representatives from the Fort Collins, Colorado, planning firm Logan Simpson, which is assisting the city.

“We’re working really hard to make sure this plan doesn’t just sit on a shelf,” Bruce Meighen of Logan Simpson told the crowd. “What do you love about Casper? Why are you here? Why did you move to Casper?”

Much of the feedback centered on north Casper, but people offered a wide range of ideas: tear down abandoned houses, stop the basketball courts from being vandalized, convert abandoned public schools into low-income housing for seniors, increase food choices and make sure there’s affordable childcare for working parents.

The church meeting was one of three public workshops conducted around Casper in early October as part of the project. The city has also promoted an online “virtual workshop” and other more specific feedback opportunities.

Attendees as the workshop were given booklets with goals that Collins, Kloke and the Colorado planners generated based on initial feedback.

Those included historic building preservation, a vibrant downtown, emphasizing Casper’s role as a regional commercial hub, improving transportation options and embracing the Platte River as a key component of the city.

In December the public feedback will start being drafted into a formal plan that can be adopted by the summer.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had as much public input,” Collins said.

He said that while the city may have some of its own ideas for what makes an effective comprehensive plan, the public has the final say.

“Our job is to present all sides of the argument,” Collins said. “We have to be real careful about listening and not trying to guide people into the direction we think they should go.”

Sometimes that is a challenge, Collins acknowledged. For example, several studies have shown that narrow streets protect pedestrians who are less likely to be struck by cars on them and more likely to survive if they are hit. But when the city mandated narrower streets in some new east-side developments, residents rebelled.

“The culture here is everyone has a big vehicle; everyone wants to park in front of their house,” Collins said.

The only place Collins said the city couldn’t compromise was on building codes covering safety issues like electrical wiring and fire exits.

That doesn’t mean Collins is unwilling to make the pitch for causes like downtown development. While many residents think downtown is nothing more than a pet project of the city government, Collins argues it is actually in the city’s economic interest.

“People have a misconception that we’re just really into downtown,” Collins said. “But if we’re not using the center efficiently it gets more expensive.”

A single firehouse can cover a certain number of blocks, and the more densely packed those blocks, the less firehouses you’ll need in the city, Collins said. The same goes for garbage collection, utilities, road pavement and more.

“Keeping things dense, in the middle, is an efficient use of government services and tax-payer dollars,” Collins said.

Generation Casper has received support from Casper City Council despite budget constraints, with Vice Mayor Steve Cathey championing the effort. At a city council candidate forum, Cathey emphasized the need to be thoughtful about the future of the city. Even during tough economic times, Cathey said, the city must invest in making Casper an attractive place if it wants to grow its population and economy.

“The millennials think different than my generation,” Cathey said. “They’re looking at amenities, and you can’t just go out and carte blanche cut amenities and keep our kids, your kids, my grandkids, here.”

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