The Wyoming Business Council said in an annual Main Street report that 74 net new businesses opened within Main Street boundaries across the state in 2018. In other words, 74 more businesses opened on Wyoming main streets last year than closed.

“There’s always going to be churn; it’s part of a healthy economy,” said Tom Dixon, spokesman for the Wyoming Business Council. “To see the general trend going upward is obviously what we want to see.”

And that’s exactly what Wyoming has seen. Beyond the new businesses, nearly 170 main street jobs came to life last year. And downtown revitalizations continued throughout the state, with more than $22 million in state funding and $15 million from private sources for building and infrastructure improvements.

Rockin’ in the Springs

Vacancies have a way of pointing out a downtown missing vitality. Life. Especially when they remain long term. But Rock Springs is starting to see an uptick in revitalization through private investment.

“Some non-occupiable spaces have been filled in,” said Chad Banks, manager of the Rock Springs Main Street/Urban Renewal Agency. He specifically pointed out that one old warehouse sat empty for “generations” until someone invested $130,000 to make it usable, valuable downtown space again. “Now it’s a gem. There are a few buildings like that.”

Of the 74 new businesses opened in Wyoming on main streets last year, 12 of them opened in Rock Springs, bringing 18 full time-equivalent jobs with them.

“It’s pretty strong,” Banks said. “We see lots of investment, have lots of interest.”

In fact, the abandoned warehouse property was just one of many investments in the past year. A total of $910,000 in private investments went into remodeling projects for downtown properties in Rock Springs last year.

“That’s a fairly big number when you consider these are not big corporations investing in a mall,” Banks said. “These are mom-and-pop shops investing $900,000 in our community,” Banks said.

One of those turned a vacant senior center into an office building. That brought four new businesses downtown. It would have been demolished and turned into a parking lot otherwise. In total, more than 200 downtown Rock Springs buildings have been restored, though it’s not clear over how long.

Though Banks doesn’t have sales figures for all downtown businesses, his agency checks in with five bellwether businesses who have all been trending upward. Anecdotally, he said he believes this is a function of a growing local-first mentality that’s acting as a rebound from the e-commerce boom.

“Give your local business a shot first,” he said. “I think we’re seeing more and more of that in the general population.”

All the good news piling up in downtown Rock Springs culminated in the city earning a Great American Main Street Award in 2018, which he refers to as the Grammys of downtown organizations. Others liken it to winning an Oscar.

“Rock Springs demonstrates the great potential of Main Street,” said Patrice Frey, President and CEO of the National Main Street Center, in a 2018 write-up. “The Main Street Approach … has the power to usher in a new era of economic opportunity and promise in a community.”

And according to Banks, the challenge lately with downtown has been not being able to find space for some of the people who want it.

Removing the blight

Rawlins is another town working closely with the Wyoming Business Council to restore a downtown withered by an unpredictable roller-coaster market.

“Back in 2006, we had a lot of slum and blight in the downtown,” Pam Thayer, executive director of the Rawlins Downtown Development Authority/Main Street, said in a Wyoming Business Council news release. “There were a lot of deteriorating buildings and empty spaces, victims of boom-and-bust cycles and continual transition periods.”

By 2010, Thayer began attacking the facades of dozens of downtown buildings with assistance from state and local business owners. The city opened a new entrepreneur center with office space, a conference room for rent and professional spaces for retail. The wins started racking up, she said.

Rawlins took a “One to Watch” honor from the National Main Street Center as part of its Great American Main Street Awards in 2014 for its efforts. Community leaders applied again in 2015 and became the first winner of the award in the region.

Now, a theater built in 1919, The Strand Theater, is one of only 20 finalists that may receive a portion of a $2 million historic preservation award from National Geographic. However, the funding gets awarded by popular vote, meaning that a state as sparse as Wyoming may have trouble locking down enough votes to win.

“We are proud and powerful Wyomingites, and I’m hopeful that the whole state will rally together and make this happen,” Thayer said in the release. “The Strand deserves some love from Wyoming.”

Economic development officials say that downtown arts and culture buildings like this can be huge drivers of economic growth on Main Street, since events drive foot traffic to restaurants and retail alike. Back in Rock Springs, the restoration of two downtown buildings there, including a historic theater, have influenced 15,000 visits to downtown a year.

“It contributes a tremendous amount,” Banks of Rock Springs’ downtown organization said. “It filters them into restaurants, bars, shops and these kinds of businesses.”

Candy in Cody

Cody isn’t one of the cities in the Wyoming Main Street program, but it has one of the more alive downtowns in the state due to its location outside Yellowstone.

Its aging downtown has seen a “stewardship” develop to invest in the community. One business owner, Kenny Lee of Cowtown Candy Company, said Main Street Cody has “gotten healthier because more business owners have gotten involved – and that’s good for the community.”

He said sales have generally improved in recent years, but doesn’t seem to see the local-first mentality Rock Springs has seen.

“People are still enamored with the convenience of shopping at home,” Lee said. However, he noted a millennial disillusionment with the online trend, and said that generation may be shopping more locally.

But either way, as a Main Street business owner, Lee has prepared for both.

“People love that they can shop in their pajamas,” Lee said. “Which is why I want them on my website.”

He said he shipped candy to Georgia the day prior to his interview, and uses his Main Street store and e-commerce site as a one-two punch. Lee said Main Street businesses do themselves a disservice if they don’t get online and develop a way for people to reconnect with them from afar.

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