Rawlins faces many of the same struggles as other small towns in Wyoming.
It lies 100 miles from any other major towns. Interstate 80, the main route in and out of Rawlins, closes frequently in the winter and the wind regularly whips through the prairie.
But it does have dozens of volunteers, and a community dedicated to seeing its downtown thrive.
Pam Thayer and the Rawlins Downtown Development Authority/Main Street have used those assets to rejuvenate its commercial core over the last decade.
Building vacancy downtown has dropped from 40 percent to 5 percent. In July, 3,000 people attended the one-day Summerfest.
“The storefronts are full. Sales tax revenue is there,” Thayer said.
The Downtown Development Authority/Main Street group last spring won the Great American Main Street Award – the “Oscars” of the main street world – for their work.
And now Rawlins will show other Wyoming communities how the town changed the face and feel of its downtown during the inaugural Wyoming Main Street Best Practices tour Oct. 8 and 9.
Participants will visit Rawlins and Laramie, two successful Wyoming Main Street communities, to learn how a downtown development program of any size can increase its tax base, expand business development and cultivate volunteers. People will learn firsthand how Rawlins rescued its downtown and earned its national award. And Laramie will show what’s happening under the hood to make its downtown engine hum.
“For people who haven’t been to Laramie in a few years, we really want to show off the murals, the bike racks, the new facades, the lights,” said Trey Sherwood, executive director of Laramie Main Street Alliance. “We also want to provide attendees a real in-depth look at how we have structured ourselves behind the scenes, and how that helps guide our process.”
Laramie and Rawlins both follow the Main Street Four Point Approach, created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation about 35 years ago.
At the time, businesses were abandoning downtown buildings for new real estate in the suburbs.
“Downtown tells the history of your community. Your downtown is a sense of place,” said Linda Klinck, Main Street program manager for the Wyoming Business Council. “The program is about making downtowns a livable, breathable place to be, so businesses can thrive.”
And in Laramie and Rawlins, it’s working.
Laramie’s downtown added 150 jobs and 18 businesses just last year. About $1.28 million in private investment went to renovation projects.
In Rawlins, four new businesses opened downtown in 2014. Volunteers contributed more than 3,300 hours of their time.
Every step of the way, Thayer said her organization follows its master plan developed in 2007 thanks to assistance from the Wyoming Business Council.
“If it wasn’t for those Wyoming Main Street technical assistance funds, we would have never done the master plan. That has been our bible,” Thayer said. “If I could say any one thing to Main Street communities, or communities interested in joining, it is to get a blueprint, get a master plan.”
So far, nine Wyoming towns have become certified Main Street communities. Together, those towns have completed nearly 1,000 building rehabilitation projects during the past decade.
Another six towns are considered affiliates. They have opened 82 new businesses downtown, which has added 217 new jobs in just six years.
“A few dedicated hard workers with community support can accomplish great things for their communities by supporting their downtown,” Klinck said.
Those interested in the program can also register for a dinner in Laramie at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 celebrating the 10th anniversary of Wyoming’s Main Street program. Call Ashley Cannon at 307-777-2845, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org, for more information.
About the Wyoming Business Council. Our mission is to increase Wyoming’s prosperity. We envision a Wyoming where industries are strong, diverse and expanding. Small business is a big deal. Communities have the highest quality of life. Wyoming is the technology center of the High Plains. Wyoming knows no boundaries. Please go to www.wyomingbusiness.org for more information.
People enjoy shopping on First Street in Laramie in this 2012 photo (courtesy Wyoming Business Council).