Casper City Council unanimously supported the Downtown Development Authority's plan for a downtown plaza at its meeting Tuesday.

Council members and the public underscored its importance for families and the need to stem the losses of youth leaving Casper, even with looming budget belt-tightening.

"We are having this in this (fiscal) crisis, and this tuck-our-tails-and-run is not a way to go now," council member Ray Pacheco said.

"As far as young people in our community, we desperately sit and say 'we need young people in Casper,' but we're never willing to take a risk and do that," Pacheco said.

A 30-something made a similar point.

Jeff Pray moved to Casper two years ago from St. Louis, Mo., and has visited cities around the world with similar plazas and the events that come with them.

He moved here, hoping to find similar amenities, Pray said.

"I am definitely one of those people who looks at this type of input into the city investment in my future, possibly my family's future for myself and other people of my generation," he said. "If that dedication is there, that is something that makes me stick around. I can very easily move to another city if I feel that Casper is not willing to invest in the future of me and the future of my family."

On the other hand, former city council member Keith Goodenough questioned the need for the plaza when the city has a hiring freeze during a time of declining tax revenues.

Some of those costs included the DDA hiring a project coordinator for $100,000 a year for two years, paid for from the franchise fee in electric bills from local citizens, Goodenough said.

Likewise, the project requires the demolition of a state-owned building. The displaced workers will be moved to the Lenhart Mason building on North Ash Street, which was bought by the city for $800,000. The state agreed to move its workers only if there was no additional cost involved. That hinges on the construction of a $40 million state office building, which may be problematic in light of the budget shortfall, he said.

Mayor Charlie Powell responded that all the question about costs Goodenough raised are in the DDA's proposal.

City council will conduct two more hearings about the plaza before taking the final vote on its third reading to make it official.

Downtown Development Authority
Downtown Development Authority

The 47,000-square-foot plaza will be located south of West Yellowstone Highway between David and Ash streets, to be completed a year from now, DDA executive director Kevin Hawley said.

The entire project is estimated to cost $8.5 million, with $1 million of that for an endowment for operations, Hawley said. The city will own the plaza and lease it to the DDA, which will operate it.

The city has committed $3 million to the project, and the Wyoming Business Council has allocated $500,000 for a community enhancement grant, Hawley said. The DDA will be applying for a like amount again, bringing total public funding to $4 million.

It now has $1.7 million in private commitments, and other potential funding sources have said they have been waiting for the council's approval before giving, he said. The DDA also will apply for grants from local, state and national organizations and foundations, as well as seek corporate sponsorships.

The public support thrilled him, Hawley said. "A lot of those folks I didn't even know, and they came out and spoke positively about this amazing opportunity, this amazing project that everyone in Casper will have the opportunity to benefit from."