Is Casper the next Oklahoma City? What about Omaha?
When City Council approved a new comprehensive plan for Casper last week, it backed a course of action that supporters hope will allow the Oil City to move past historic limitations: Make it an even nicer place to live.
Casper is remote. It’s known first as an oil and gas town and has struggled for respect since its founding, as a cluster of tents and temporary buildings, in the late 19th century.
“The prospects for Casper in the early days to grow beyond a shambling, temporary frontier village were anything but inviting,” Natrona County Tribune editor Alfred Mokler wrote nearly 100 years ago.
But it has grown and, if nothing else, survived, in the decades since.
Generation Casper, the ambitious document approved by City Council on Wednesday, seeks to help overhaul the city's economy -- joining cities like Oklahoma City in spirit if not details.
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Bruce Meighen, a planner with Logan Simpson, the Colorado firm that helped create Generation Casper, said Oklahoma City represents a successful model for cities that previously relied on oil and inevitably succumbed to busts.
“These other Midwestern cities that lack that economic boom are going through renaissances right now,” Meighen said. “If you talked to them 30 years ago, people would have never imagined it was possible.”
That doesn’t mean Casper is seeking to mirror those places. For example, Meighen points out that the high plains of central Wyoming, with a distinct frontier identity and outdoor recreation, is a far cry from the landscape of Nebraska or Oklahoma. It also lacks some advantages of some of the cities Meighen cited, like four-year universities.
Casper City Planner Aaron Kloke goes further in describing the departure between Casper's future and that of other boom towns. He declines to list any cities that Casper might grow to become like.
“The best that we can do is create a plan that is intrinsically Casper and builds off the Casper vernacular and the history of Casper,” Kloke said.
But Meighen highlighted that other former industry towns have forged economic stability through strategies that might be replicated in Casper. Specifically, Generation Casper emphasizes the connection between quality of life and economic development.
A focus on livability
If city planning used to focus on the bare-bones concept of “compatibility” -- avoiding an oil refinery setting up shop next to a nursing home, for example -- it is a field that is increasingly proposing a more assertive role for local governments in creating so-called livable cities.
That role for government in Casper is one that has been embraced even by otherwise conservative officials, like former Vice Mayor Steve Cathey, who spoke in favor of Generation Casper’s adoption on Wednesday.
While on Council, Cathey spoke frequently about the importance of making Casper attractive to young people.
“One of their things is, ‘I can live anywhere -- why should I come to Casper?’” Cathey said at a forum last fall. “You can’t just go out and carte blanche cut amenities and keep our kids, your kids, my grandkids, here.”
Generation Casper emphasizes the facilitation of these amenities. It encourages planning that embraces the North Platte River, crafts downtown into a vibrant city center and calls for Casper to not just continue as a regional economic center but for it to be a “distinctive” one.
Meighen said that focusing on quality of life in a city’s comprehensive plan carries certain political risks. It’s relatively straightforward to convince a community and its officials that a new road or water line will lead to economic development. It’s harder to convince them that new bike paths or public wireless internet access will do the same.
But, Meighen said, there is ample evidence that focusing on the human experience pays dividends. That doesn't mean ignoring or forsaking Casper's current industries but rather looking at how new companies and residents can be lured.
“Energy is very important to us. It’s who we are,” he said. “But let’s focus on the things we don’t have.”
The document is meant as a guideline and Council’s approval is more of a green light to move forward with its suggestions rather than explicit approval for every item. But the plan, which was based largely on public feedback gathered through dozens of events and surveys, calls for doing this in ways small and large. For example, it recommends reducing parking requirements for developers that boost pedestrian-friendly elements like landscaping and walkways.
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But it also tackles larger zoning issues, suggesting that Casper may need more unique zoning rules -- like those currently used in the Old Yellowstone District -- to encourage distinct neighborhoods.
Kloke highlighted the semi-industrial area northeast of downtown, south of the train tracks, as one that could serve as a “makers' district” that allows residents to work and live in the same location. Right now the zoning does not allow residential occupancy.
It is an idea that has worked in cities like Omaha but one that Kloke notes would be tailored to Casper’s needs.
“In some cities, this idea of makers' districts is a little fluffy and they just want artists to hang out,” he said. “We want it to be a place where we can encourage fabricators, welders and artists to work and where they could also live.”
For such a broad plan, Generation Casper impressively received universal support at its public hearing on Wednesday and passed Council by a unanimous vote.
Casper Area Economic Development Agency CEO Charles Walsh spoke in favor of the plan, saying that it would position Casper to receive state funding for capital improvements that could help attract new industries and businesses.
“The state is moving into a diversified model, whether we want to or not,” Walsh said. “This plan gives us a leg up.”