Deciding the future of three city-owned buildings in downtown Casper shouldn’t be viewed as a dilemma, said Urban Bottle owner Lynette Boatright.

“It’s an opportunity,” she explained.

Boatright was speaking at a Tuesday afternoon meeting she organized between local residents and business owners and the Downtown Development Authority to discuss potential uses for the buildings.

The development authority is part of a group which recently told Casper City Council the land in question is the best site to develop an approximately $70 million hotel and conference center because of its central location.

But the Council had already advertised those buildings for sale, and three local entrepreneurs hoping to bring a bakery, an apparel company and new apartments to the downtown area submitted their proposals in October. The buildings, which are located on Ash Street north of Midwest Avenue, include the former Ka-Lark’s gymnastics studio, the former Milo’s Toyota body shop and a former livery stable.

Kevin Hawley, the development authority’s CEO, told the crowd Tuesday that he doesn’t like controversy, but is speaking out because the city’s future is at stake.

A hotel and conference center could bring more people to Casper and significantly increase downtown’s foot traffic, whereas the proposed new businesses will not likely draw overnight visitors to the city, he explained.

“My fear is we are going to plateau,” said Hawley.

But developing a hotel and conference center at this site would involve knocking down the buildings, which the Casper Historic Preservation Commission is against.

“We as a commission want to make sure to preserve and protect our historic buildings,” said the commission’s chairman Connie Thompson, adding that the hotel can be built at another site.

One attendee said he thought the structures were an eyesore and did not see the value in preserving buildings just because they are old.

Another audience member suggested placing pause on the entire process so community members could have more time to weigh both sides.

Hawley was also supportive of placing the process on hold. He said selling off the buildings now is unwise because they are located near the David Street Station, a public plaza that opened in August.

The complex currently offers an outdoor stage and recreational spaces, but will be expanding next year to include a splash pad and seasonal ice skating rink. Given that the plaza recently opened and is not yet complete, Hawley said it’s difficult to currently determine the value of the Ash Street buildings.

But two of the entrepreneurs who bid on the buildings two months ago told the crowd they need Council to make a decision.

Scott Cotton, a co-owner of 1890 Inc., hoped to purchase the former Ka-Larks gymnastics studio because his custom apparel store needs more space to meet customer demands. Planning to purchase a new building has taken time and effort away from his current business, he said.

“We just need an answer,” he remarked.

City Council appears to be struggling with the decision, as members have previously expressed enthusiasm for both the proposed businesses and the potential convention center.

A public hearing on the issue has been slated for Dec. 19.

The conference group includes representatives from the Casper Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Amoco Reuse Agreement Joint Powers Board, the Downtown Development Authority and the Economic Development Joint Powers Board/Forward Casper.

The group will be discussing the hotel’s economic feasibility at a City Council work session Tuesday night.

Katie King covers the city of Casper.