By: Nick Perkins
“If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.”
— Don Draper
It was a dead end. If on a random Saturday night, ten years ago, you found yourself at the cross section of David and Yellowstone Street, you had gone too far. Time to flip around and go back to the East side of town, where the real action was. Not all that long ago, Downtown Casper was a ghost town. It was old, dirty and, according to our mothers, dangerous.
Aside from the movie theaters and a couple of restaurants, there wasn’t much to Downtown Casper. Businesses were built on the East side or the far West side. Places that, ya know, people would actually go to. Downtown was desolate for the longest time, and it was hindering the growth of Casper.
“The money’s on the East side,” most old-timers would say. That’s where the renowned McMurry family lived and built businesses. It’s where the best car dealerships were located. It’s where the best schools and restaurants were frequented. “Downtown,” for all intents and purposes, simply didn’t exist. Even if it did, nobody would want to claim it, anyway.
That is until the Downtown Development Authority decided to change that. One man, in particular, took it upon himself to ‘change the narrative.’ His name is Kevin Hawley and he is the Executive Director of the DDA. For years, Hawley had seen the potential for downtown, along with a few other notable names like John Huff, Karen and Jim Kanelos and more. They believed in the potential of Downtown Casper. The tricky part was convincing the public to do the same.
“People, for the longest time, said our downtown sucks,” remarked Hawley. “[They would say] ‘there’s nothing to do downtown; that’s for my grandma.’”
Well turns out, grandma was a lot more hip than you thought because she was right. Downtown was cool and it did have potential. The conversation just needed to be changed.
Enter the DDA and, specifically, the creation of the David Street Station.
“5 years ago, we started the conversation,” Hawley said. “We asked ourselves, ‘what can we do to dramatically change where we’re going as a downtown?’”
Dramatically was the key point. If downtown was going to change, it needed to be more than just an aesthetic facelift. It needed to be more than potholes being filled, sidewalks being repaired and flashy signs saying how great Downtown Casper was. The DDA knew they needed to change the conversation in a big way and in a way that people would actually care about.
Coincidentally, rumors were starting to abound that Casper was about to get hit with a wave of tourists because of an eclipse that was going to take place in the summer of 2017. Wyoming’s Best Kept Secret was about to be released to the public, and the Downtown Development Authority wanted to make an impact.
That’s exactly what they did with the creation of the David Street Station- a huge, outdoor multi-functional events center that could present concerts, movies, parties, festivals and more. The David Street Station, it was hoped, would be the beacon that would guide other businesses and patron’s downtown.
The road to get there wasn’t an easy one, but it also wasn’t as hard as one would expect. Like a jigsaw puzzle being put together by a cocaine addict, once the idea was there, the pieces started falling into place relatively quickly.
The first step, obviously, was getting funding. For a massive project like what The Station was projected to be, the DDA needed funding from the city, the state, public and private investment. And that was just to get the thing built and functional.
They started with the state which, ironically, was in a building built on part of the property that the David Street Station would be on.
Hawley laughed at the memory of that initial meeting.
“It was really tough to go to the State of Wyoming and say ‘Not only do we want to buy your property and kick you out, but we also want you to pay for part of it.’”
Surprisingly, the state went for it. So did the city.
Get ready, because we’re about to talk numbers.
“The city pledged $3 million from un-allocated One Cent taxes,” Hawley stated. “They had $25 million kind of leftover that they didn’t have projects allocated [for], so they said ‘We’ll contribute $3 million of that as the public investment.
Then, we marched down to the state and raised $1 million in state grants. Then, we balanced that with, now, over $6 million in private investment in the public project. That spurred over $45 million in private investment in property acquisition and rehabilitation within 3 blocks, in 18 months.”
Casper was ready for something different, and they put their money where their mouth was. The city, state, public and private investors all contributed upwards of tens of millions of dollars because they all agreed with Hawley’s original vision- that Downtown Casper had a hell of a lot of potential.
Various people within the city saw what Downtown Casper could be, but the world saw what Casper was capable of on August 21, 2017. That was the day of the Eclipse.
Thousands of people flocked to Casper, as it was alleged to be one of the prime viewing locations in the country. Casper, as it’s wont to do, rose to the occasion.
Various businesses rolled out the red carpet for tourists and locals alike. Hotels were booked solid. Restaurants were making money hand over fist. New establishments, like the Gaslight Social, timed their grand openings just in time for the Eclipse. It was The David Street Station, however, that was the real star of the show…besides, ya know, the sun.
“Here we are, open for the Eclipse,” Hawley beamed. “[We had] really good fanfare for that. Then, that came and went and we had a few events after that but were more focused on opening the other half [of the Station]. We did that on June 1st and we’ve been rockin’ and rollin’ since. I think everybody loved the splash pad and we were really excited that [the public] got to see the full version when we opened the skating rink, with the tree as well.”
In November of 2018, The David Street Station installed an ice skating rink to coincide with their (now) Annual Tree Lighting Festival. Hundreds of Casper citizens gathered downtown to usher in yet another era for the David Street Station, The District and Downtown Casper as a whole.
Hawley was there of course, and as he was taking in the truly magical scene, one of his employees walked up to him, put an arm around his shoulder and asked if he could have ever imagined it would be like this.
“I looked at him and was like, ‘Yeah. Yeah I did,’” Hawley remembered.
Hawley always knew what Downtown Casper was capable of. Another vital part of The David Street Station, who also saw its potential, was Jackie Landess. Landess is the Operations Manager for the David Street Station and, as a recent college graduate, she represents The District’s youth perspective. After she graduated, Landess was trying to decide her next step. As it turned out, that next step led her right to The District.
“I saw the vision and was ready to move home,” she said.
Hawley joked that Landess “started at the bottom and worked her way up to the glamorous world of cleaning bathrooms and changing garbages.”
While those less-than-glamorous chores are, indeed, part of the gig, Landess is responsible for a lot more. She is the one that develops and implements many of the events and activities that take place at the David Street Station.
She is responsible for events like the aforementioned tree lighting ceremony, the Cinema and Skate events for children, the newly-developed Broomball League, concerts, rally’s and more.
Landess is truly a Jack(ie)-of-all-trades and a master of them all.
Never was this more evident than with the recent “Noon Year’s Day Mac & Cheese Festival.” This was the 2nd year in a row David Street Station hosted a family-oriented New Year’s Celebration and, even with a typical Wyoming Blizzard, they had over 1800 people show up. Fortunately, the DDA had The Lyric as a backup in case of weather. Well, weather happened so the festival was moved. Even with its change in location, however, that event just goes to show how invested people are in their community and how most of us are eager to connect with each other.
The David Street Station allows for that to happen. But it’s not the only business that believes in Downtown Casper.
“This wasn’t the savior of downtown,” Hawley said of The Station. “This was one component to a successful and thriving downtown.”
The people behind David Street Station couldn’t have done it on their own, by themselves. If they didn’t have the support of other businesses and, most importantly, the community, David Street Station simply wouldn’t exist.
“Being that we’re privately funded, not from the city, we’re only as strong as the community that supports us,” Hawley stated.
He continued, stating that one of the biggest struggles of operating The Station is that “although there was a public contribution, to this public project from the city and from the taxpayers through One-Cent, this still isn’t operated by the city. We’re not a line item on their budget. Everything we do is privately funded for the operations and maintenance. That’s where it’s been a struggle, especially this summer when it was just Jackie and I. It was overwhelmingly difficult to keep up with everything but we did whatever it took.”
They did whatever it took, and it shows. The David Street Station is a product of the hearts, minds, dreams and, yes, pocketbooks of numerous people. It is truly a labor of love, but it’s something that all of Casper gets to love.
“There’s a lot of negativity in the world,” Hawley said. “I think David Street Station is everything that’s good about Casper. Coming down there, meeting people, having fun, smiling, meeting new friends, seeing old friends.”
“Casper, this is yours,” he continued. “Take care of it. Take pride in it.”
The David Street Station was not the product of just one person. It wasn’t the product of two or three people. The reason David Street Station was built and the reason that it functions is that the community knew that Casper had the potential to be more than “just another town in Wyoming.” The community knew it had the chance to be something special; especially our downtown.
“We just decided to start telling people that downtown is cool! It started slowly; you’re not going to change it overnight, but our downtown is cool. Here’s what’s going on: we’ve got Third Thursday, we’ve got the Art Walk, we’ve got Rock the Block, we’ve got Frontier Brewing, we’ve got the Balloon Fest. You just change the narrative, change the story.”
That’s exactly what they did and that story began in The District. We think we’ll call it “Where Casper Comes Together.”