The Casper City Council unanimously approved conceptual plans for a proposed $8.5 million downtown public plaza.
A bevy of downtown business owners and others spoke in favor of the undertaking at the council's Tuesday meeting. The plaza would be located between David and Ash streets, along Second Street and West Yellowstone Highway.
“As a downtown and Old Yellowstone District property owner, it’s great to see that development happening sort of straddling those two districts,” said Shawn Houck. “I think it’s going to be bringing a lot of life and energy into the core of our city, and more importantly, it becomes an all-season destination for families and for friends to gather and enjoy and celebrate all the things that make our community great.”
The council was required to vote on accepting the plaza plans under a state statute involving public funding for blight removal. The city, via the Economic Development Joint Powers Board, recently received a $500,000 state grant for the plaza.
Earlier this year, the council approved upward of $4.5 million in support of the undertaking, including $3 million in optional 1-cent sales tax funds. This added some $400,000 to the Downtown Development Authority budget, in large part to administer and develop the plaza project. In a somewhat complex arrangement, the city purchased a $1.1 million office building near City Hall for future city use, but which in the next few years would be leased to the state rent-free in order to vacate a state office building located in the middle of the proposed plaza site. The state office building must still be purchased, however, and has an appraised value of some $800,000.
While the Downtown Development Authority in its turn is raising some $2.5 million in private funding, at the public hearing, former City Councilman Keith Goodenough questioned the amount of public financing, particularly in light of the downturn in the economy.
“That’s my opposition, when the city is experiencing declining revenues, the state is experiencing declining revenues and now this is another project. And it’s always easy to spend other people’s money, but at some point you’ve got to say enough is enough,” Goodenough said, while adding later, “I see some things as critical and some things as optional, and so obviously you want to spend critically first, and I would say staffing the police department, for example, would be higher on the list than a plaza.”
The council, however, emphasized the benefits of the project, ranging from providing construction jobs, offering younger people a public venue and being a long-range improvement to downtown.
“If we want those young people, if we want that revitalization, we need to have some draws, and I think a public space is a really good idea,” said Vice Mayor Daniel Sandoval, while noting the boost it would provide. “That is probably the best argument one could make for investing in a public space right now. We’ve got to have some energy, so some youth, some attractions that people can come to.”
In a related comment, local businessman Pat Sweeney proposed reallocating the $5 million in city funds that has been set aside for a hoped for, but stalled, conference center project and putting it toward the newly revived civic auditorium project across the street from the proposed plaza.
“With the changing times, and what is taking place, I truly believe that you need to look at that, and possibly redirect those funds,” Sweeney said. “I would like you to consider putting those funds back where they belong, and that is the fine arts performance center, which will enhance when it’s completed. … It does nothing but enhance the plaza.”
The plaza developers are hopeful — if funding and other logistics can be completed — that the plaza can be completed by the fall of next year.