To Whom It May Concern: Casper Businesses React to Downtown Street Closures
When it was announced that a portion of 2nd street would be closed down during the month of October, for construction on various aspects of the street, many small business owners in the downtown area were taken aback.
Some didn't know construction would be taking place until it began outside of their doors. Others said they thought it would be happening earlier in the year, or later. Crown Construction, the company responsible for the work downtown, said that the City of Casper hosted a meeting months ago for business owners and the general public to comment on the situation, but business owners say they had no idea that meeting was even taking place.
Miscommunication seemed to be the overriding theme and the result is a desolate downtown area that a handful of business owners are saying will cripple their revenue.
Business owners in downtown Casper received a letter from the construction company, dated September 21 that said:
"To Whom it May Concern:
Crown Construction, LLC will start the 2nd Street Downtown Mill and Overlay Project on October 4, 2021. 2nd Street will be closed from Durbin Street to David Street with the cross streets open. The sidewalks will remain open for access to all businesses. If you have questions, please feel free to contact Kevin Cummings (Crown Construction), Bruce Gothard (Crown Construction), or Scott Baxter (City of Casper) [phone numbers redacted]."
Many downtown businesses said that while they understand that construction needs to take place, they wish they had more time to prepare.
"The biggest thing is just giving us more notice," said Claire Marlow, owner and curator of Scarlow's Gallery, Art, & Coffee. "I think everybody got something from the construction company about seven days before the project started. It didn't say what the project was or how long it was going to be, it just said 'Starting on the fourth.' It was through other news outlets and other people in town, different hearsay, that we found out it was going to be a month."
Shad Rodgers, the Streets and Traffic Manager for the City of Casper disagreed with the notion that business owners weren't given enough notice.
"It was probably a month or two ago, we did try to hold a public meeting for all the business owners to attend and I think we only had one [business owner] show up," Rodgers said. "We did advertise the project as being open for comment, but we didn't get much feedback from that."
Bruce Gothard, one of the owners of Crown Construction, confirmed that a meeting did take place, with minimal turnout. He also said that he and his crew hand delivered notices to the businesses downtown.
"I don't remember the exact date [the public meeting] was supposed to happen, but we handed out notices downtown," Gothard said. "We went door-to-door and handed out notices."
Jamie Reed, the General Manager of the C85 Branding Iron said that the Downtown Development Authority also sent out emails alerting businesses of the construction taking place. She also said that, because of the construction, the Branding Iron is offering a special discount throughout the month.
"We're offering a discount until the 30th, which is when [we think construction] is over," she said. "It's Sunday through Wednesday, 10% off dine-in only."
The Branding Iron isn't the only business offering discounts to bring more people in. The Gooseberry Creek Boutique is also offering a 10% off 'Construction Sale,' solely to get people through the door.
Kelly Reyes, one of the owners of The Wooden Derrick Cafe, knows that her restaurant hasn't been a fixture in downtown Casper for very long. They're still in the building process and, according to her, this decision significantly slows their building.
"This is all we need," Reyes stated. "Oh my gosh, all of us down here; we've gone through COVID, we've gone through employee shortages. You name it, it has hit us all. And now this; the impact is going to be significant."
If this week's sales are any indication, the impact is already significant, according to Reyes.
"Mondays are usually our busiest day," she offered. "And I could probably tell you that we had at least a 70% to 75% decrease in our sales this Monday. I don't know how the rest of the week is going to go."
Josh Tinnell, the owner of The Bourgeois Pig, has also already experienced a dip in business.
"Starting yesterday, it was really noticeable," Tinnell said. "The two periods of the day that are normally my busiest are crickets now."
He understands that the work needed to be done though. He also understands that the construction crew hired to take on the project are just trying to do their jobs as well.
"I went and talked to one of the owners of the construction crew today," Tinnell stated. "And he pointed something out to me - they did have a big meeting this last summer and only one of the downtown business owners showed up. I remember vaguely something about the meeting, but I feel like if only one person showed up, somewhere along the line, communication broke down. But that's on us as well. We should have been a little more proactive about maybe trying to find out what was going on."
Gothard and his partner, Kevin Cummings, acquiesce that communication could have broken down at some point. But he said they're not afraid to communicate with business owners or with the general public during the project.
"People can talk to us," Gothard said. "If they don't have our phone number, it's on all of our equipment downtown. They can call Kevin or myself and as long as they're calm with us, we can calmly explain what's going on. We're more than happy to."
Gothard also acknowledges the impact this project can have on the downtown businesses. He understands how hard it is for a mom-and-pop-shop business to survive, because Crown Construction is a mom-and-pop-shop as well, he said.
"Things happen, you know?" Gothard said. "Inclement weather, changing of the seasons - they impact our business and slow us down and impact our income. So, as a business owner, I totally get [the frustration]. I'm sympathetic towards that because we all know that mom-and-pop type business, like Crown Construction themselves, if there are too many slip ups, you do have to close the doors. And it's unfortunate. That's why Kevin and I, Crown Construction, are willing to work with these people. We're going to keep the road open as long as we can and close it for as short as possible and try to keep as much access as we can because small businesses are important to us."
But some business owners disagree and one business owner, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the city really could have worked harder to prepare them for this venture.
"I believe that this was a terrible case of mismanagement for the City of Casper," they said. "This has been a summer of rebuilding for us. Business was just starting to take an uptake toward the end of the season. My understanding, originally, was that they were going to do this project in August and we all wrote letters and got it changed to a different date, but even in October, we've got our last little bit of good weather here. And I can tell you that just in the last two days, since our streets have been shut down, my business has gone down 95%."
Granted, it's only been a few days so far but multiple businesses have seen a decline in their revenue.
"I'm not the only one," this anonymous business owner said. "It's a ghost town out there. We know the money was available from COVID monies, but did this really need to be done right now? Or could the money have been better spent? I was under the impression that our new parking area over here was going to be used for all sorts of things, and I was corrected. It's only for those government buildings and after-hours parking for the Gaslight [Social], but that does nothing for the merchants here. But to strike or make any kind of statement or whatever...we can't. Because after the last few years, none of us can afford it. And the city knows that."
They said that they have no ill-will towards the city, nor the construction company. They just wish that there could have been a better plan that benefitted, or at least wasn't a detriment, to their business.
"I'm the first one to say that the City of Casper has been such an exciting place to start your business in," they said. "I felt welcomed. I felt cared about even from the state tax revenue office. That was amazing. Those boys were wonderful. But this, in particular, has been extremely detrimental to us, just in the last two days. I can only imagine what a month of this is going to be like."
Debbie Dallman is the owner of The Spotlight Lounge, Casper's newest venue. It's a full-service bar that also serves gourmet hot dogs and features live events every weekend. Technically, it hasn't even had its official 'Grand Opening' yet, but it's feeling the effects of the construction work as well.
"Already, it's put a crunch in our daily sales, with our lunches and such," Dallman said. "In two days' time, there's already been a steep decline. But we're still hopeful. We'll be here, we'll be open. We'll still just keep doing what we're doing. We have our music events on the weekends and I don't know what kind of impact it will have on that. Typically, there's not great parking downtown anyway, so when people come for an event like what we put on, they know they're going to have to walk a little ways. But as far as people just passing by, it's definitely slowed down."
Sid Anderson, owner of Sid-A-Del Jewelers, had one piece of advice for the City of Casper.
"Time your disasters," he said. "Seriously. We just got out of Corona. I just quit my second job that I used to keep this place open during Corona, and now I've got a month's worth of no income. It would have been nice to have some breathing room between then and now because you know they're gonna lock us back down next year because there'll be elections and we've got to lock people down for elections. The government is becoming very tyrannical."
Anderson said he doesn't buy that this was something that had to be done this year. If the goal is to make downtown more beautiful, he said, there are a lot of different things that could be done that don't block off the streets.
"Downtown businesses need a chance to recover," Anderson stated. "We don't mind the work and if they say we need it, okay. But, quite honestly, there's potholes all over this town that could be filled. If they want to make downtown look better, they would start patrolling the alleys, getting rid of all the graffiti. Two days ago, there was a homeless guy sleeping in the entryway a couple of doors down. That chases away business, cause they're always panhandling. They haven't been aggressive this year, but last year, my God. They were aggressive homeless people."
Anderson said that in addition to cleaning up graffiti and, um, expelling homeless people, the City of Casper should also look at free parking options.
"We need free parking," he said. "I'm dreading the day that they decide that they want to put in parking meters, because that will kill us. I will most likely be forced to close this shop up and open one somewhere else. If they want more businesses downtown, they've got to make it customer-friendly, and right now it's just not."
Tinnelli is a bit more understanding of the need to complete this project this month.
"I think as long as the weather's nice, people will get up and walk," he said. "I've been thinking a lot about the timing of it and I guess this really is about the best time. You don't want to be doing it over the winter, you don't want to do it over the summer when we're making all of our money. So, you know, I understand. I think a few things could've been done a little differently, but overall, after talking to these guys, they just want to make everybody happy."
Gothard confirmed this.
"The City of Casper put the project out and they do so, they give us a completion date," he said. "We have to be done by that completion date. And it's better to do it now. If you wait a year, especially with as much traffic is down here, even the foot traffic- the way some of the sidewalks are, and the curb and the gutter and the crosswalks are- they're huge trip hazards. And if they get covered with snow and you can't see them as well, people could get hurt. It's better to handle these things as soon as you can, especially in a busy part of town, so that you can prevent personal injury and wrecks and accidents."
Gothard said that they have a job to do, but they also know that businesses in downtown Casper have a job as well, and they are trying to move forward as quickly, efficiently and, most importantly, as safely as they can.
"Just have a little patience," Gothard offered. "I promise you'll appreciate it when it's fixed up. If people have any questions, they can feel free to call us and we'll talk them through whatever we can. We're just trying to help Casper look good. We're trying to clean it up."
Phone calls to Scott Baxter with the City of Casper have, as of this writing, not been returned. This story will be updated with comments from Baxter if and when they become available.