Proponents of the David Street Station have long said a public plaza would help attract more businesses to downtown Casper. So far, they’ve been right.
The area surrounding the plaza, which opened in August, is booming. Some of the city’s most popular places to eat and drink are now located within a few blocks. Even on winter nights, there’s noticeably more life in the neighborhood.
Now, three more local entrepreneurs want to set up shop just down the street from David Street Station. They’ve submitted proposals to develop businesses in what are now vacant city-owned businesses on Ash Street. Those plans include a bakery, an apparel company and possible apartments. The city used a similar strategy a few years ago with a former produce warehouse, which resulted in Racca’s Pizzeria Napolitano, Urban Bottle and Art 321.
The Ash Street proposals could continue the burgeoning vibrancy in the city’s core. Unfortunately, none of them may come to fruition. At a meeting last month, the head of the Downtown Development Authority suggested that Casper City Council hold off making a decision on the proposals. A few weeks later, the Downtown Development Authority was joined by groups including the Casper Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Amoco Reuse Agreement Joint Powers Board in recommending that the land be used instead for a potential $70 million hotel and conference center project.
Then just days ago, we learned that proponents of the conference center met with three members of the City Council and City Manager Carter Napier to discuss the matter. Because there wasn’t a quorum of council members, the meeting was not public.
We’re dismayed that groups that are supposed to be encouraging private development of downtown are trying to convince city leaders to back off the local business proposals. The plaza is bearing fruit – attracting new businesses just as proponents said it would. But instead of supporting them, representatives from these groups are asking City Council to hit the brakes for a conference center plan that has bounced around for years and isn’t anywhere close to becoming a reality.
There’s a basic issue of fairness here that is concerning. The local entrepreneurs did things by the book. They had their proposals ready on time and showed up prepared to answer questions from the council. In contrast, the conference center group has yet to present a plan in public, entered the process after it began and appears to be lobbying behind the scenes against the very people they should be supporting.
Let’s be clear here: While we would love to see a new conference center, recent history suggests we should be at least skeptical of any proposals becoming a reality. The City Council flirted with a downtown conference center plan earlier this decade, but the effort floundered when new council members were elected. There was discussion of a conference center on the Platte River Commons, the former Amoco refinery site west of downtown. That, too, failed to come to fruition.
The conference center group now wants City Council to hold off moving forward with three business proposals in favor of a nebulous plan that may or may not ever be realized. That would be a poor choice. The City Council should reward local entrepreneurs with viable ideas that are ready for development.
Such a decision doesn’t preclude a downtown conference center from happening. There is other land available in the area, including the nearby site that had been proposed for a new library building. City leaders have done their part in Casper’s downtown. They should now let local entrepreneurs lead the way.