Thursday, May 23, 2013

Revitalize Cheyenne's downtown with a Plesiosaur and a Hesperornis or two

Hesperornis regalis, also known as "western bird." This flightless bird reached six feet long and roamed Wyoming's inland seas 100 million years ago. A few Hesperornis skeletons would add some pizzaz to downtown Cheyenne.
Take a stroll around your local mall. Notice that the place has large anchor stores surrounded by specialty shops. The types of shops near J.C. Penney’s are different from the ones around Sears are different from the ones near Dillards. These shops have uniform storefronts of 20 feet. You know why? That used to be the width of storefronts in traditional downtowns, back when their mainstays were mom and pop stores selling groceries, clothes and bric-a-brac, back when there was a market for bric-a-brac.

Mall developers were smart. They took what was good about our downtowns, covered them with a roof, threw in some air-conditioning and acres of parking and voila, the past was reborn as the future.
Downtowns now are looking back to the future for revitalization.
Cheyenne’s central business district is 75 square blocks. Did you know that? I didn’t, not until Monday night when I attended a meeting sponsored by the Downtown Development Authority at the Historic Plains Hotel. The speaker was Todd Barman from the national Main Street program. He’s toured and studied hundreds of American downtowns. They share similar problems and some successes. Yet each is distinctive in its approach to revitalization. In fact, the ability to highlight your downtown’s unique characteristics and stories is crucial to its success.
Barman challenged us: “What do you think about when you think about downtown?”
Depot Plaza. The Hole. Atlas Theatre. Frontier Days parades. Parking hassles. Government offices. Empty buildings. Summer concerts. Farmers’ markets. The Hole.
Always with The Hole.
What about “a cool place to be” or “a wonderful shopping district” or a “dining mecca.”
We’re not there yet. We need to think of downtown as a destination, to consider it as a whole. But since our downtown is so large, we need to break it down into smaller districts that emphasize a certain personality.
The area around the Historic Depot and its outdoor plaza and the surrounding railroads could be the anchor to a district that represents the city’s history as a transportation corridor. Cheyenne’s downtown parking structure boasts a display about that history. Lincolnway is so named because it was part of the Lincoln Highway, the cross-country route that predated the interstate system. Two major interstates intersect in Cheyenne – I-25 and I-80. And before the roads and rail lines, the Native tribes camped in Cheyenne before heading up and over The Gangplank of the Laramie Range. Before humans took over, some large animals trooped through these parts. In the recent past, woolly mammoth and saber-tooth tigers roamed my neighborhood. At about 65 million years ago, it was home to the allosaurus and triceratops.
More than 100 million years ago, Wyoming was under 2,500 feet of water in the Western Interior Seaway. To the east was Appalachia. To the west, Laramidia named for the Laramide Orogeny which produced the precursors of the Rocky Mountains and the Laramie Range which I can see from my yard on a clear day. We are famous in geological circles. Cheyenne was home to Squalicorax (an ancient shark) and plesiosaurs and mosasaurs and Xiphactinus and Hesperornis ("western bird"), a flightless bird whose body structure supported swimming rather than flying. Its small wing-like appendages were used for steering while it’s stout legs could propel it through the water.
How to parlay that into a lively downtown district? That’s the trick, isn’t it? We have to talk to one another (bummer!) and plan and volunteer and encourage entrepreneurs and rethink parking and city ordinances. Not easy, but necessary.
Barman said that one of the drawbacks of our central business district is its size. We may have to tackle it one district at a time. He cautioned us not the label these districts with a “theme,” as that could end up looking like a gaudy downtown theme park. That approach has been tried unsuccessfully, leading to ersatz Swiss villages or fake Old West towns that look like Hollywood sets.
A rail history district could easily arise out of the city’s origins as a tent camp for the Union Pacific and later a railroad hub for the West. We have the Depot and the Depot Museum and Plaza, the roundhouse, old railroad hotels such as the Plains, and many other structures. There are train buffs all over the world who would love to arrive in Cheyenne by rail, but passenger trains don’t stop here anymore. The exception is the annual Frontier Days special from Denver to Cheyenne, bearing the Colorado governor and Denver mayor and scores of pols and celebs in town to view the first CFD parade and the rodeo. But barring any future choos choos, this part of downtown still could play up its railroad past with walking tours, festivals, films, street performers, etc. One thing is certain – it has to arise out of the city’s story and be genuine.
“How do we tell these stories?” asked Barman. “People love overlapping stories told about a place.”
First you do the research to find out what they are. At the same time, you build interest and gather residents eager to enliven downtown. All of this activity centers on the DDA/Main Street organization, which provides direction and grant money.
Cheyenne has made progress, Barman said, but there is much more left to do. I’ll explore some of the options in a future post.


Juliette Rule said...

I love the idea of swimming with sharks downtown! OK, I don't really, but that gave me a fun brain break, Mike! Thanks!

Michael Shay said...

A huge shark tank in downtown Cheyenne? Now you're talking.