How Downtown Preservation Drives Economic Growth with Chad Banks

Have you heard these common myths about the importance of downtowns and cultural centers in community preservation? Myth #1: Downtown revitalization is only for big cities. Myth #2: Cultural centers are just for entertainment and not essential for the community. Myth #3: Investing in downtown revitalization is a waste of resources. In this episode, our guest Chad Banks sheds light on the significance of downtowns and cultural centers in community preservation.

Host Emy DiGrappa and co-host Lucas Fralick engage in conversation with Chad Banks, Director, Rock Springs Main Street/Urban Renewal Agency. They discuss the critical role of downtowns and cultural centers in community preservation and economic growth. The episode highlights the significance of historic preservation in Wyoming, where funds are limited. Chad Banks shares the inspiring story of the restoration of the Wyoming capital, which faced resistance but ultimately preserved the building's beauty and history. Chad emphasizes the need for community-driven initiatives and partnerships between local governments, Main Street programs, nonprofits, and various agencies. 

Chad Banks, a dedicated Rock Springs resident, whose roots in the town trace back to five generations, vividly shared his journey of discovering the importance and need for preserving downtowns and cultural centers. It all began with a casual trip to a small town in Utah for his daughter's dance competition. What caught his attention was the town's blandness, its lack of unique identity, a stark contrast to the vibrant and historic downtowns he was familiar with. This experience sparked a realization in Chad. He saw how these downtowns, with their historic buildings and unique stories, were the pulse of the community, providing a sense of identity and continuity. Chad took this realization back to Rock Springs and into his role with the city's Main Street program, where he has since worked to reinvigorate the downtown area, preserve its rich history, and enhance its unique identity. 

Links:

Resources:

  • Explore the Main Street program and its revitalization programs for locally owned, locally driven prosperity. 
  • Learn about the Smithsonian Sparks exhibit, Spark Places of Innovation, which highlights innovation in rural America. 
  • Stay tuned to learn more about the locations around Wyoming that will host the Sparks exhibit. 
  • Explore the Main Street program and its revitalization programs for locally owned, locally driven prosperity. 
  • Stay tuned to learn more about the locations around Wyoming that will host the Sparks exhibit. 
  •  Encourage children and adults to learn about and appreciate the history and heritage of their communities. 
  • Contact the Main Street Urban Renewal Agency for information on downtown development and revitalization programs. 
  •  Support local businesses and entrepreneurs by shopping and dining in downtown districts. 
  •  Encourage children and adults to learn about and appreciate the history and heritage of their communities. 

 

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00:00:00
             

Winds of change brought to you by Wyoming Humanities Council. I am your host, Emy DiGrappa, joined by my co host Lucas Frolick. Listening to Windsorfchange is an excellent way to get to know the people and places of Wyoming. You can find us on Thinky.org. That is T-H-I-N-K-W-Y for Wyoming Humanities Council?         

00:00:22
             

Sign up for our podcast newsletter and subscribe to our podcast. We are exploring the heart of a community and asking you, our audience, what makes up the heart of a community? Learn about the mainstream movement and how it grew out of a recognition that a community is only as strong as its core. The Main Street program empowers communities to create revitalization programs for locally owned, locally driven prosperity. And we are also talking about the Smithsonian Sparks exhibit.         

00:00:53
             

Spark Places of Innovation will highlight innovation in rural America and it explores how the unique combination of places, people and circumstances sparks innovation, invention and creativity in rural communities. Stay tuned to learn more about the locations around Wyoming that will host a Sparks exhibit. Thank you.         

00:01:36
             

Welcome everybody. Welcome to Winds of Change and we have Lucas here today, my co host, and we also have Chad Banks with us. And not only is Chad a board member, but Chad Banks is also, he works for the Main Street Urban Renewal Agency as a manager for the City of Rock Springs and we want to talk to him about innovation, downtown development and his work for Rock Springs and his background. So welcome Chad. Thanks.         

00:02:06
             

Thanks for having me. So let's just start there. What is your background? Well, first of all, where are you from? I'm from Rock Springs.         

00:02:15
             

I'm actually a fifth generation Rock Springs resident, so I've been here a long time. I have lived in Casper during the little while and then of course Laramie for the University of Wyoming. But other than that I've been in Rock Springs my whole life. Wow, that is so cool. Yeah.         

00:02:34
             

So tell me about your work and what does the Main Street Urban Renewal Agency do? So Main Street, for those who aren't familiar, is a national movement that is really sort of redevelopment and reenergizing downtowns or historic districts. So it's not always just downtowns, but it could be historic districts in and around the US. And it's an approach that Main Street America has developed. It's been around I think since the about 50 years and there are, I don't know, 15 or so towns in Wyoming that are part of the Wyoming Humanities Council approach and we're one of those.         

00:03:12
             

And our program here in Rock Springs has been around since 2006. So we've been around about, what is that, 15, 1617 years? Something like that. So we're charged with the redevelopment as well of downtown Rock Springs and so community and economic development here in Rock Springs. So when you say community and economic development, what does that mean?         

00:03:35
             

I mean, what do you do to make that happen. Yeah, well, the buzzwords obviously everybody knows what I think, what economic development is, right? Trying to bring in new businesses, those kind of things. But it's a lot more than I think. There's always this perception that economic development is landing a great big factory to come in and build widgets in your community that's going to create 300 jobs, and that would be nice.         

00:03:59
             

That's really not the way it works. And so it's incremental. And so our economic development approach is working with the existing businesses downtown to help them grow. So maybe they're able to add a part time position or a second full time position or expand their offering and sell more online or whatever the case is. So how can we help the existing businesses that are located in the downtown district grow and expand?         

00:04:24
             

And then how can we recruit new businesses or help entrepreneurs find spaces to maybe move out of their basement or out of their garage and take that next step into a storefront? And how do we go about doing that so that's the economic development portion and then the community development portion is reinforcing, I guess, if you will. The downtown is sort of the heart of a community, so that's producing events that bring people downtown. We've renovated three or four different vacant spaces, vacant lots in downtown to re energize those and take them from weed filled lots into contributing spaces. We've redeveloped buildings, we've redeveloped our theater.         

00:05:08
             

So that's sort of the community development aspect of it. No, I think that's excellent. I'm so happy to hear that. I'm going to have you send me some photos of some of the projects that you've worked on that have changed the face of the community. So let's go over to Lucas, because Lucas has a great project and I feel like these projects go hand in hand together in many ways.         

00:05:34
             

And so, Lucas, tell us what you're working on for Wyoming Humanities Council right now. Sure thing. Yes. You bet. So part of my portfolio is to help coordinate the Museum on Main Street program.         

00:05:48
             

It is a little bit related, other than just the similar names of the two main streets, but the Museum on Main Street program is a branch of the Smithsonian Institute's Traveling Exposition service. Let's just call that Sites for short because I'm not going to say that whole acronym out loud again. So Sites is a wonderful program. It's a nationwide partnership with Wyoming Humanities Council councils. The whole idea is to bring Smithsonian quality exhibits and programming to different states, and specifically to more rural or low populated communities.         

00:06:28
             

That's not always the case, but for us and our purposes, that is going to be the case. Pretty much anywhere in Wyoming is considered a small urban area, so we qualify in every town, even those as big as Casper. Technically, it would qualify as a rural space, if anything, because of the surrounding communities around it. So what's great about an exhibit that we're bringing next year, may 18, 2024? In fact, it's called spark places of innovation.         

00:06:56
             

You can't see it right now, but Spark has an explanation point which makes it really exciting, not frustrating. That's the problem with print sometimes. So the exhibit does more than just discuss what innovation is. It's more about what the environment a community has to face in order to create that spark for innovation. The exhibit is broken down different modules art innovation, technological innovation, cultural heritage innovation, and social innovation.         

00:07:25
             

If you're listening, I'm sure you're wondering, well, what does all that mean? Well, that's a good point. It means whatever a community wants it to mean, which is what makes this both frustrating and very exciting, because every community tackles changes and challenges differently, but all of it comes to the same solution, and that is innovation and whatever that looks like. And I think from a Main Street perspective, as Chad was saying, with economic development and community development, all of that requires innovation to work. Hence why I think a partnership is so valuable in this case.         

00:08:01
             

That's my spiel. No, I love it. I love it, Lucas. And the reason I thought this conversation, know, urban development, community development, everything that Chad was talking about and sparks is because what communities do to stay alive and stay vibrant is all about innovation. It's all about how you bring people together around ideas.         

00:08:24
             

So Chad, tell us some of the things that you've seen in Wyoming, maybe not just in your community, but what do you talk about with other urban renewal managers in Know? I think that's what's sort of exciting and where it ties into what Lucas talked about is that it is innovative and it's really community driven. And regardless of what each community does, it may be different, but it all goes the same direction. And so, like Rawlands, for instance, had a really exciting project. Gosh, it was a good decade in the making.         

00:08:58
             

Where they leased the front? I don't know. I want to say 6ft of 48, I believe it was, buildings in their downtown district and were able to sort of do a lease on those, generated some Wyoming Humanities Council funds with some matching funds and renovated the facades of all of those, which was super exciting and a really innovative way to do that. Obviously, those property owners had some buy in as well, so they had to do some matching. You know, some of them had brand makeovers depending on how much the private property owner was able to invest and match versus some of them that may have had a much smaller makeover.         

00:09:35
             

But something like that, that was really never done in Wyoming and really very innovative. Across the US. From a little town here in Wyoming in Rollins, laramie did a great project of infill where they built infill is Know, many downtowns where you maybe lost the building, maybe to a fire or know, it became, know, dilapidated to renovate. So it's been torn down. And we all see that where there's an empty space.         

00:10:00
             

So Laramie did an infill project where they actually built a building in the middle of between two buildings, put their co op grocery store in there, was a really great project, and now they've added on their additional story. So I believe the third story now houses, I believe, three new studio apartments in downtown Laramie. Wow, that's great. Projects like that, that you may not think of that take a lot of work, a lot of manpower, a lot of time, a lot of innovative thinking about how you're going to find funding, how you're going to find leases, all of those kind of things. But it takes innovative leaders in all of our communities to do that.         

00:10:41
             

And those are just two great examples from right here in Wyoming. That's great. That's exactly, I think, what this exhibit helps to inspire. Every module showcases a community that went through this very same transformation, different places across the country that face an issue like the ones that you just described in your examples. It doesn't necessarily have to be a negative issue either, but just something they want to see an improvement in their community.         

00:11:07
             

I think it'll be wonderful to see once the exhibit arrives in Wyoming, how each community ties it back to those very examples that you discussed. I think that'll just really make the exhibit pop all over the place. There's so much potential. It's very exciting. Lucas, what are some of the communities that you have signed up so far for the exhibit?         

00:11:29
             

Well, right now, as the time of this recording, I really can't say. It's a good question, but unfortunately, it's just due to the nature of how our selection process takes place, it's always safer to not tell everyone who we're considering, just for safety's sakes, mainly for my reputation. But I will say that all of the applicants that we've received are going to be great hosts. So regardless of what the final decision is, it's going to be a win to anybody and everywhere. I always find it interesting how and maybe, Chad, you can answer this for me because I think the heart of a community is so important and it really gives that community so much character and vibrancy.         

00:12:19
             

And I always wonder how a community loses that. You know, people start to they don't see downtown or they don't see the heart, they don't see those historical places as being important anymore. What causes that? That's a good question. I think part of that is when the community sort of loses that themselves.         

00:12:40
             

Right. I can't think of the community name, but I have three daughters and one of them was in dance. And so we traveled all over. It felt like for these dance competitions on a Saturday, and one of them was in a smaller town in Utah and they had, at least from what I looked at, completely gotten rid of their old downtown or never had a downtown. And so all they had know, the strip malls and the big box stores and all of that and so you go this looks like every place else in America.         

00:13:11
             

There's nothing unique here. There's still nothing that is cultural anymore. There's no history. And that's where that preservation comes in really is so strong and so important. And I think that's where groups like Wyoming Humanities Council, wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, main street, all of those are really critical to preserving our history and what that means.         

00:13:33
             

Each town in Wyoming is unique. We're founded for different reasons, we have different histories. And preserving that and continuing to tell that story is, I think, what's really important here in rock springs for know, and I think this is actually a statewide so, you know, all of our third graders learn about rock springs history, all of our fourth graders learn about wyoming history, and those are the people that are going to carry on that heritage. Right? I mean like my kids are the ones that now are tasked with why these things are important in the history of our communities and our state.         

00:14:07
             

And so that's where I think those things are so critical that we reinforce and educate our children and our adults about why that's important. Why is it important that we're restoring a bank building that's 100 years old a block from me? Why that's important? Yeah. I have the privilege of serving on the Gillette Historic Preservation Commission.         

00:14:27
             

So you're definitely speaking my language of the crucialness I mean talk about your community's heritage, right? And these buildings don't seem that important at first, but you just remove that fake brick and you see the real brick underneath and it's a cliche to say it's a time machine but in a lot of ways it does bring a downtown together in a more surreal fashion, something to celebrate. We have an old city hall building that was built in the early 30s in the midst of the Great Depression. And the story behind that building alone is worth just preserving the building, I mean it was built just people throwing in what they could to pay for it. That's something that just doesn't happen, especially during the great Depression.         

00:15:10
             

So those reasons alone brings character, attracts a certain class of people to a town in positive ways, I think. So I have another question for the two of you as I was thinking about as you both have been talking, do you think that Wyoming's boom and bus cycles contribute to just like a once really vibrant community happening and then all of a sudden it's just gone and it's like a ghost mean, right? You see that driving know on the highways around Wyoming. You see some of those communities that have really all but disappeared. I believe we probably have them in every county in Wyoming.         

00:15:53
             

We certainly have some here that were mining towns or railroad towns that have now there's a few foundations left and that's it. But certainly even our larger communities, rock Springs, has faced the boom and bus cycle and what that means and how that means our growth when there's a boom and we're expanding with subdivisions and new developments and new strip malls and sort of hollowing out other parts of town. And I think that happens also. And so that's where it's really important that we remember that downtowns and those cultural centers are still really key to what we hold here. And as Lucas mentioned, sort of that historic preservation, especially, I think, in Wyoming where our funds are more limited.         

00:16:36
             

We just don't build buildings like that anymore. The Wyoming capital is a wonderful example. We just spent 400 million restoring it and there was a lot of, and still is a lot of heartache about that. But I can't imagine what the alternative would have been, right? I mean, would the alternative have been to demolish that beautiful building and build a steel structure that looks like a big box store?         

00:17:03
             

And so it's so critical and those stories that remain, like, again, I'm thinking about the Wyoming capital. There's fossils in the tiles. If you look, one of the balustrates is upside down to make the building not perfect, just all these little things that you don't find in big boxes that you don't find in new construction that are worthy of preserving and worthy of telling that story. Absolutely. I would think a lot of these ghost towns and towns that are really having difficult economic times, that's exactly where innovation can take place.         

00:17:43
             

That's one of the many factors of the innumerable factors that contribute towards what inspires people to make changes for their community to survive. And I know there are several examples within the exhibit of communities facing that exact same situation. And they just turn their town around, they just refocus their industries. But the crucial part of all this is that everyone works together. They have public forums, there's disagreements, there's agreements and everything in between those.         

00:18:15
             

And they create a cohesive community that allows them to keep surviving. And it's hopeful in a lot of ways. It's a good story once so many. Of those things have to be, I think, community driven. Just like the exhibit we talked about, the, you know, it's not like Wyoming Humanities Council is coming in and saying, we're going to put this exhibit in your community for these six weeks or whatever, right?         

00:18:40
             

It's an application process and you go through all of that. Main street is the same way. It's community driven. It's driven by volunteers and lots of community input about what would you like to see in this vacant lot, what would you like to see downtown, what kind of restorations, what kind of innovation, what kind of artwork, all of those things. And so the community is really key to making sure that those if it's transformations that those happen and that the community is involved in crafting and creating the community that they want it to be.         

00:19:14
             

Precisely. Yes, that's exactly it. So Chad, it just brought to mind because I live in Moran, but I have an office at the center for the Arts in Jackson and everybody's always fighting over everything, I'm not kidding. So are you a part of the planning commission and the county commission and Wyoming Humanities Council in order to represent your agency and the work that you're doing? Yes and no.         

00:19:47
             

So here and every main street in Wyoming and I think across the US. Is a little bit unique in how they develop their program to work for their community. So here we are, part of the city, we're city staff, we have a city budget. And in addition to that, we also run a standalone nonprofit that raises funds and provides grants and all of those things. Other agencies in Wyoming that do the same work, some of them are wholly nonprofit.         

00:20:14
             

And so we work with the city very closely because we're city staff. And so we work with planning and zoning and we work with the building department and Wyoming Humanities Council, certainly not so much the county commissioners. That's really more of the political role for the council to play. And then we take direction from our board and from Wyoming Humanities Council and the mayor. And I think that's similar in other communities, right?         

00:20:40
             

I mean, you don't want your Main Street program doing something that Wyoming Humanities Council and everybody in the community doesn't agree with, even if they're a nonprofit. So I think they all work very hand in hand. But the way that we're funded is certainly differently and the way that we operate is a little different. That's one of the many hidden lessons of Spark also is the importance of partnerships with city and other organizations and the counties, all of that. These things only work if it's together, regardless of where funding comes from, of course, which is always the most important question, but it's how it's applied that.         

00:21:18
             

Matters too well in those partnerships. It's not just governmental, right? So all of our industry and are they contributing? And what kind of community does industry especially, and I know this is incredibly important to us, like, what does industry want to see? How do they recruit new employees and what does that community look like those employees want to come to?         

00:21:41
             

And then we work also very closely with, I want to say, just about every agency in the community. So be it the Boys and Girls Club or our tourism folks, our Wyoming Humanities Council, our museum, our college, our school district. So everybody has to be in the table, I think, to make sure that voices are heard and that the community reflects itself. So I've learned so much today. So I want to thank you, Chad and Lucas, for joining me in this conversation, and I really look forward to talking more.         

00:22:15
             

And after Lucas can reveal. The yes, yes. Sit tight. Sit tight. Yes, sit tight.         

00:22:23
             

I know we'll let everybody know. So that'll be cool. That'll be great. So thank you so much, and and I appreciate your time. Thank you.         

00:22:32
             

Yeah, thanks.         

00:22:39
             

Thank you for listening. I'm executive producer. Emy DiGrappa. Winds of change is brought to you by Wyoming Humanities Council, our co hosts and all the people who generously share their stories and their time. For more information, go to subscribe and never miss a show.