For the last decade, Casper leaders and local economic development groups have gone back and forth over the future of a proposed convention center in the city. The city has commissioned studies and hired consultants to determine the best course of action. Individuals and boards made plans for building and financing the project. These ultimately failed. Various groups have tried different approaches, but none have gained the traction necessary to inflate a big convention center project. Most recently the Downtown Development Authority took a swing at the project.
Their efforts also ultimately failed. And now, the window of opportunity may be closing.
A private contractor has started work on a convention center in Cheyenne.
The $55 million project is set to be completed by the end of 2020. And this leaves Casper leaders at a challenging crossroads: Cede the potential benefits of a convention center to Cheyenne, or get off the couch and work hard to resurrect a similar project in Casper.
Because of Casper’s central location, most major statewide events were held here for decades.
That changed as the facilities in Casper aged and those in Cheyenne and Laramie were remodeled or constructed new and those communities began offering amenities which Casper no longer could.
Of course, the history of the long-running debate surrounding the proposed convention center is nuanced. Proponents of the project argued that it would be an economic boon for Casper, not only catering to the many events Casper already hosts, but drawing even more out-of-town business.
The benefits of a first-rate hotel and convention center, argued supporters, would more than compensate for the costs. As it stands, Casper only has one space big enough to accommodate large events – the Casper Events Center. This, of course, leaves out-of-town guests to find other accommodations for their stay. A hotel and convention center in one location would address this problem.
Opponents of the center, however, were concerned that a hotel and convention center would detract business from Casper’s other hotels, namely the Parkway Plaza, which billed itself as the meeting and events hotel for the town.
But just last year, the Parkway was shuttered indefinitely. Getting that hotel back to its former glory will be no easy undertaking and may not even be possible. Casper has many fine hotels, but none were built as convention centers and competing for convention business without a convention center is not a winning strategy.
Location was also a major hang-up for city officials when determining the future of the convention center. Finding the right spot to build it seemed to be an impossible decision for the city’s leaders on multiple occasions.
Ultimately, though, proponents of the center had the right idea; create a convention center in the heart of Wyoming to attract and serve the variety of conventions and tournaments that want to come to Casper.
At this point, many of the criticisms of detractors seem less significant in light of the risk we run of losing the conventions and tournaments altogether. The impact to Casper’s economy will not be insignificant.
There is a lesson to be learned here: Previous City Councils were unable to pull the trigger on the project because they could not agree on the city’s role.
Had the city taken a firm stance one way or the other, potential developers could have responded – either by submitting proposals to the city or pursuing privately-funded ventures. But with the city’s long-term goals and commitment unclear, the risk was crystal clear and hoping for private investment was likely a waste of time.
We would urge our current City Council members to be decisive.
If a convention center at the heart of Wyoming is an important asset for the city of Casper, now is the time to take actions that make, or allow, the need of a convention facility to become a reality.