Apartments, entrepreneurs, art all play parts in revitalizing downtown Casper neighborhood

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

What a difference four years and inspired community investment can make.

Where now the Village Inn and Great Harvest Bread Company are flourishing alongside public art space and new housing, just four years ago was an empty area going downhill.

In 2009, the neighborhood between Wolcott and Kimball streets along Collins Drive in downtown Casper was in bad shape.

The Bi-Rite pharmacy and Village Inn restaurant both were shuttered, the streets needed repairs and the KC Apartments triggered more public safety calls than any other apartment complex in Casper.

That summer, the city council authorized a project to narrow Beech Street to a two-lane road, to make space for pedestrians. In the fall, the city shut down the KC Apartments after inspections revealed widespread safety hazards.

“It had to be shut down from a fire hazard standpoint,” Community Development Director Liz Becher said. “Initially, people were upset, but when it’s coming out that there is imminent potential for death, you have to take a hard line.”

Developer Steve Grimshaw, who built the Wyoming National Apartments, bought and demolished the KC Apartments.

In their place, he envisioned an environmentally friendly, 18-unit, affordable housing complex. The Wyoming Community Development Authority provided grant money to help finance the demolition and rebuilding project.

During construction, land became available a block west of his property, so Grimshaw started building a matching 26-unit apartment building.

“All that was vacant land, just some overgrown trees,” Grimshaw said. “When we redeveloped that area, we provided beauty for the entire community and our end users, the tenants.”

He called the projects Sunshine I and Sunshine II.

Each building received a gold-level certification for green building techniques, the first of its kind for a Wyoming apartment complex.

Grimshaw believes he recycled as much as 90 percent of the demolished KC Apartments building material.

“Community revolves around people,” Grimshaw said. “We just needed to bring good, quality people into the (neighborhood) and transform a semi-blighted area into a vibrant neighborhood.”

In the meantime, the city also set to work on completing $1.63 million in improvements on Collins Drive between Durbin and Kimball streets. As part of the project, workers widened the sidewalks and installed brick inlays to improve the aesthetics and walkability of the neighborhood.

They also created a transit hub for the public bus system.

“That bus depot is a huge benefit to our residents,” Grimshaw said.

Grimshaw said the apartments brought in the population base local entrepreneurs needed to open their businesses.

Business comeback

In early December, Village Inn reopened after standing vacant for four years.

“When the economy started turning, things got slow and [the building] needed upgraded,” owner P.J. Gulley explained. “The landlord didn’t want to do anything at the time.”

It took Gulley more than four years to get the title completely in his name. As soon as he did, he fixed the water lines and plumbing issues to bring the building up to code.

Since its grand reopening, Village Inn has seen steady traffic, and Gulley expects local interest in downtown patronage to continue increasing.

“It’s going to be very positive, and I see the potential going on downtown,” Gulley said. “People are upgrading, and people down there know that, they see it.”

In 2011, Casper physician Michel Skaf and his brother, Tony, bought the old Bi-Rite building along with another partner. They spent the past year renovating and remodeling the site.

They divided the first floor into four sections, two for the Cedars Health Clinic, managed by brother Ziad, and Great Harvest Bread Company, plus two spaces for lease. The Girl Scouts of Montana and Wyoming organization now calls one of the new storefronts home.

“It maybe would have been faster to demolish it … but it’s always important to keep history,” said Tony Skaf. “I have many customers that come and say, ‘I worked here when I was 15 years old.’ It’s really something for them, and they tell us we did a really great job with what we did.”

The city’s ongoing matching grant program for repairing and improving storefronts provided the Skafs with $10,000 to give the building a new look – most notably windows and rock work – to go along with the overhauled interior.

“The city uses federal allocation money, and it really has made some storefronts look great,” Becher said. “It helps so they can put that money into the business and not into stucco and windows.”

Since 2011, the city has provided more than $125,000 in matching grants to improve downtown-area facades.

Tony Skaf was grateful for the city’s “presence” in every stage of opening the bakery, from permitting to the final inspection.

Great Harvest Bread Company opened with a splash over the summer. In the fall, Cedars Health Clinic opened next door.

The location on Collins Drive is ideal for each of the companies in the building, Tony Skaf said, because they are on the border of residential and downtown areas. Many of his regular customers walk from home for coffee and baked goods in the morning, or walk from work for a sandwich at lunch time.

“Hopefully what we did for this project will help the downtown area to be more attractive for businesses and customers to come to downtown and enjoy it,” he said.

Making downtown unique

Creating walkable, livable spaces is part of what Holly Turner calls smart growth.

Turner’s eight-year tenure as Nicolaysen Art Museum executive director, which ended this year, encompassed much of the Collins Drive neighborhood’s turnaround.

“It was not a very good situation, there were a lot of problems, a lot of police, a lot of vandalism and homeless people living near the Nic,” Turner said.

With the city demonstrating its commitment to the neighborhood with street improvements and a new transit plaza, and Grimshaw starting fresh with new apartments, Nicolaysen officials decided to do their part to help.

The Nicolaysen won a $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant and, with the help of in-kind services and city donations, developed a public art space next to Sunshine II across the street from the museum.

“The sundial is a focal point for the community as a whole,” Grimshaw said. “Especially at night, when you drive by and it’s lit up, it’s a really nice corner for people to appreciate and enjoy.”

Under Turner’s leadership, the Nicolaysen became a cultural center of Casper. Nic Fest has grown into a statewide event, local artisans showcase their crafts at the farmers' market and Wednesday Night Live gives local musicians another performance venue.

“That wasn’t there before. I think it’s very critical to have those things in the downtown area; it makes your city unique … it showcase the talent we have in Casper,” Turner said. “The city’s done a lot of planning and research on livable, walkable space, and smart growth, and what makes a vibrant downtown community.”

Turner believes the revived Collins neighborhood is a taste of what the city is trying to accomplish in the Old Yellowstone District. She expects a planned conference center west of downtown to provide the missing piece of a strong foundation for the nation’s eighth-fastest growing metropolitan area.

“It’s close to downtown, and I think having a wonderful convention center to come to and enjoy the local art scene and music scene is what visitors are looking for,” Turner said.