Downtown Cheyenne, WY. Photo by Cliff, via Flickr.
Cheyenne, WY is at a crossroads. As the state capital of Wyoming, the city of 65,000 residents has long represented the cultural identity and values traditionally associated with the rural American West. Yet just 90 miles north of Denver, CO, Cheyenne is also a growing participant in the economy of the Front Range region, which includes Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs and Ft. Collins among other major and mid-sized metropolitan regions in northern Colorado.
“Residents in Cheyenne want to become a part of that growing Front Range economy, while still being rooted in the values of Wyoming,” says Cheyenne’s Planning Services Director Matt Ashby, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. For Ashby, balancing these two sides of the city is about attracting new investment to Cheyenne while preserving the city’s unique character.
Cheyenne’s economy has historically been closely tied to the operations of the state government, and other major employers include a military base and large medical center. City leaders have also worked in recent years to cultivate and expand a digital technology industry to diversify Cheyenne’s economic base, and the city is now home to several major data centers. But to remain competitive within the region, Ashby argues, Cheyenne must also provide the high quality of life necessary to attract residents and private sector investment.
“We are located forty miles from one of the most highly-touted communities in the country,” says Ashby. “Ft. Collins frequently lands on ‘Best Places’ lists. We see a lot of people choosing to live in that community because of the quality of life. We can’t ignore that if we want to maintain our competitiveness.”
To that end, the City is currently working on a major revitalization project, the redevelopment of the West Edge Historic District in Cheyenne’s downtown. Through an extensive community visioning process, the City developed the West Edge Visionary Blueprint, a plan for transforming the 30-square-block former industrial neighborhood into a vibrant community center.
Ashby explains that the City is taking a comprehensive approach to the West Edge project by focusing on four interrelated objectives for the district: improving flood control, redeveloping brownfields, creating new public spaces and spurring private sector investment in the downtown. “Our goal is revitalization, and we think that by merging stormwater management, brownfields cleanup and construction of public amenities we can spur large scale investment in our downtown,” says Ashby.
This multi-pronged approach to revitalization originated with a Brownfields Assessment Coalition grant that Cheyenne received from the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2011. Like many older industrial neighborhoods, Cheyenne’s West Edge has been haunted by concerns about environmental contamination. In some cases, the possibility of hazardous waste on vacant properties within the district proved enough to deter prospective developers—contributing to a cycle of disinvestment in the area.
The West Edge district and neighboring Lower Capital Drainage Basin have also historically faced frequent flooding, resulting in property damage and high costs associated with addressing the impacts. Ashby notes that the City realized that better stormwater management and flood control in Cheyenne’s downtown would be critical to both preserving the city’s historic industrial architecture and attracting new investment.
“The lightbulb came on when we saw the flood inundation map of our downtown,” explains Ashby. “I work every day to try to get people to invest in our downtown, and I looked at that map and said to myself, ‘If I were considering investing millions of dollars, why would I locate in an area where my investment could get wiped out by flooding?’”
Cheyenne’s initial brownfields grant gave the City a vehicle to provide the private sector with the certainty needed to spur investment. It also provided a means for engaging residents of Cheyenne in developing a vision for the future of the West Edge, leading to the development of the City’s multi-sided approach to revitalization.
Ashby points to this comprehensive approach as a crucial factor in building and maintaining public support for the West Edge redevelopment project. “In order to address larger, community-scale issues, you need to come at them from multiple directions. We try to support initiatives that meet multiple objectives. Our efforts are more successful when we can wrap in components that address different stakeholder groups’ desires and needs.”
Moving forward, city leaders and residents hope the revitalization of the West Edge district, along with other revitalization efforts, will result in a melding of Cheyenne’s best assets, preserving and highlighting the city’s character while attracting new small businesses and cultural amenities that will help Cheyenne create its own brand of Front Range.