Saturday, December 02, 2017

The stuff that dreams are made of

What do you dream of, Laramie County?

That's the question asked in the lead editorial in the Nov. 19 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle.

Good question. Dreams should be big. Write the Great American Novel. Cure cancer. Become president (please, someone, anyone but T).

What is my vision for Cheyenne?

Develop downtown into a destination that reflects the soul of Cheyenne. This place is called The Magic City of the Plains because it is located in what used to be known as the middle of nowhere. Ask any twenty-something and they will say it still is the middle of nowhere. They will wave at you as they depart for Fort Collins or Boulder or Denver.

I am not advocating for some fake Wild West town such as the frontier village out at CFD Park. Cheyenne was founded in 1867 when the West was wild. It experienced its heyday in the 1880s, when Cheyenne was a beacon of civilization among the frozen wastes.

We are 150 years old now and it's time to act like a grown-up. Let's create a downtown that reflects the needs and tastes of 2017 and beyond. Breweries and coffee shops are great -- both beverages make the world go around. We also need reasons to shop downtown. People will then want to live downtown, sacrificing their suburban spread for a two-bedroom condo above a busy art gallery or bistro. To make that leap, people need a solid infrastructure within a walkable distance. They need reasons not to have their Nissan Sentra parked within feet of their front door.

Shelter. Food. Culture. What comes first? Downtown boasts galleries and shops but we need more. We need a grocery store. A wide range of activities to attend. We need more venues for those activities.

I know that Cheyennites are tried of comparisons with Colorado cities. But some examples are worth noting. Old Town Fort Collins was not always the community's busiest hub. When I lived there in the late 1980s, it was just showing signs of life -- Foothills Mall was the happening place. A few years back, developers tore down the semi-deserted mall and created a pseudo-Old Town in its place. The same sort of transformation is happening at our mall. The newest tenants occupy outward-facing stores to give it that downtown look. Now that Sears is gone, the mall has a lot of space to fill. Let's hope the owners thing creatively.

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) was not an instance success when it opened. Its main promoter, Donald Sewall, was called names and tumbleweeds blew through the deserted DCPA plaza. Same with the 16th Street Mall. On a typical Saturday night, the mall was almost deserted because there were no reasons to wander downtown. In 1979, when I worked the night shift at The Denver Post at 15 and California, there were only a handful of dining experiences, most of them bars that also served greasy-spoon fare (Sportsman's, Duffy's), one lone Burger King and the Mercy Farm Pie Shop. A myriad of places that served locally-sourced ingredients in small portions at high prices was a thing of the future. Beer selections were Bud and Coors.

What happened? A population boom fueled by legal pot and a rootless generation looking for The Next Best Place. Jobs, too. Professional sports teams and the arts jockeyed for position. Downtown won with its many venues. The DCPA was deserted no more. When Chris and I go to touring productions there, I always run into people from Cheyenne. They would avoid Denver traffic if only The Book of Mormon played closer to home, say, at the Cheyenne Civic Center. We just don't have the facilities or the numbers here. We need more seats. More butts in the seats.

Big dreams come with a population increase. No way around it. Cheyenne is already the largest city in the state. Laramie County will be the first to reach a population of 100,000 some time in the next decade. We already are home to one in six Wyomingites.

It's not as if there isn't hope in Wyoming downtowns. You can see successful examples of thriving Main Streets in Laramie, Lander, Sheridan (its new WYO Performing Arts and Education Center is a gem), and Casper. You don't need a total eclipse to have people wandering downtown Casper. Its David Street Station, reminiscent of Cheyenne Depot Plaza, has sparked a downtown renaissance in what's called the Old Yellowstone District. Breweries, bistros, a performing arts center. Outdoor summer concerts on the plaza. What did Casper do that Cheyenne didn't?

I have no solutions. Lots and lots of ideas, but those are a dime a dozen. What we need is imagination and investment, two things sorely lacking in this burg.  The Dinneen family and the City of Cheyenne collaborated on the transformation of the former Dinneen auto dealership. It'snow home to businesses and one of the best restaurants in town -- the Rib & Chop House. It's a small chain, but it has invested heavily in Cheyenne, also spawning a brewpub to full the empty retail space in the historic Depot. My one-time colleague at the Wyoming Arts Council, Camellia el-Antably, and her partner, Mark Vinich, rehabbed an old building downtown and now it's home to Clay Paper Scissors Gallery and its fine arts shows. The arts play a crucial role in any dream of future prosperity. Arts Cheyenne gives us an organization and an events calendar to rally around.

Just a couple of examples. If I had the money to invest, I would put it into downtown ventures or the nascent West Edge Project. It's going to happen. The only questions is WHEN?

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