LARAMIE, WYO.—From the old Garfield Street Footbridge, trainspotters can idle away the day watching freight trains as they rumble through town. The railroad tracks run directly underneath the pedestrian bridge, a relic built by the Union Pacific Railroad Company in 1929. Around Laramie, hanging around on this bridge waiting for a train to go by is a favorite local pastime, shared by residents and visitors alike.
The bridge over the railroad tracks gives a view of Laramie’s past as well as its future: You can see the steeple of the Swedish Lutheran Church that still rises over the old Scandinavian neighborhood on the West Side, as well as the colorful murals that now dot the historic downtown to the east.
“You grab coffee, grab ice cream, you stand and you wait for a train to come through, and it’s the best free entertainment ever,” says Trey Sherwood, executive director of the Laramie Main Street Alliance. “But, if you’re on Third Street, you have no idea that any of this is here. There’s no visual clue.”
The train corridor, which defines the western edge of downtown, is a fixed border that Laramie has learned to live with, and even embrace. Not so Third Street, the highway that divides the town again just a few blocks to the east. For four-and-a-half miles, Third Street doubles as both U.S. Highway 30 and 287, a major north-south Wyoming thoroughfare that zips through Laramie, parallel to the rail. The highway is nearly impossible to cross as a pedestrian. This means that nearby Second Street—Laramie’s historic downtown corridor—is virtually cut off from everything to the east, including the University of Wyoming, the city’s lifeblood.
Solving a problem like Third Street ought to be a straightforward affair—you knock out some traffic lanes, add some landscaping and sidewalks and cycle tracks, and re-focus the road to emphasize other users, not just high-speed drivers. Plenty of cities have figured out that slowing down cars is one surefire way to turn downtown streets into more walkable communities. But a road diet has never looked feasible for Laramie, a town of 32,400 in open-sky country that is about as hostile to taxes as it is inviting to dreamers; around here, most folks don’t know Jane Jacobs from Calamity Jame.
That’s why people in Laramie teamed up with Community Builders, a nonprofit that specializes in working with towns in the West. Community Builders helped develop downtown strategies for places like Taos, New Mexico, and Gunnison, Colorado. The organization has also partnered with towns across Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and northern Colorado. “If you look in the West, it’s an incredibly fast-growing place. Most of the top-ten fastest growing states are in the American West,” says Community Builders executive director Clark Anderson. “It’s certainly a place that matters with respect to land use, transportation, economic development, housing, all of that stuff. We felt like, from a geographic perspective, this is a region that needs this work.”
Of course, the work that Community Builders does involves public transit, mobility, infill development, and other concepts more commonly associated with dread coastal elites. “From a political perspective, this is a region that has some unique and important dynamics,” Anderson says. “How do we translate a lot of the ideas and learning that’s happening more broadly within the world of urbanism to these places and make it resonate?”
Community Builders, which launched in January 2016, got its start as the Rocky Mountain division of the Sonoran Institute, a conservation group that operates across the West. Sized at a startup scale with a staff of eight, the group has worked in 14 communities already since launch. Community Builders receives support from foundations, donors, and contract and fee-for-service work.
In Laramie, Community Builders is working with stakeholders—the Laramie Main Street Alliance among them—on a project called 3, 2, 1 . . . 3rd Street, a suite of enhancements to slow down traffic along a mile-long stretch of the highway.
From gateway medians to new on-street parking to turning-lane restrictions, there’s nothing particularly revolutionary in this package. What’s more striking is where this is happening—in a state that’s known to be allergic to anything resembling a top-down government intervention—and the outsized impact the project could have on Laramie. Right now, University of Wyoming students who want to walk from the pocket of bars and restaurants around 17th Street to the main drag on Second Street have to cross 60 feet of highway on Third to get there. Curb extensions and gateway medians will make that safe and feasible for UW students—and ostensibly attract new businesses to Third Street itself.
Laramie doesn’t have the money to pull off 3, 2, 1 . . . 3rd Street alone. What makes this proposal possible is a plan already in place by the Wyoming Department of Transportation to repave and repaint this stretch of highway (and add some accessibility improvements) by 2020—your standard “mill-and-fill” highway project. Laramie’s project, including WYDOT's planned road work, is expected to cost several million dollars. Diverting state DOT funds to irrigate local needs is one of the goals of New Mobility West—an umbrella partnership between Community Builders and a few other like-minded regional groups to boost transit and transportation in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado.
Urban interventions in outlaw country face all the traditional challenges, from public skepticism to outright hostility among taxpayers and traditionalists. But Community Builders faces a special uphill lift: The group must often cultivate the leadership community whom they wind up consulting. Especially in towns where industry revolves around a single node (coal or tourism).
“We don’t think you can build stronger communities, especially within the West, without [paying] attention to strengthening local leadership,” Anderson says. “There’s a lot of organizations that go into places and bring a lot of ideas and inspiration. It feels like a whiz-bang parade—and then they leave. In these communities around the West, it takes more than that.”
Laramie assembled a team of eight community leaders to enlist in Community Builders’s Community Mobility Institute, a two-and-a-half day training seminar about where transportation intersects with livability and economic opportunity. In Laramie, that place is Third Street; that opportunity is keeping students in town after they graduate. The training led to a design charrette stage that looped in elected leaders.
“The wonderful thing about this Laramie project was, it was timed correctly,” says Jillian Sutherland, program director for Community Builders and project manager for 3, 2, 1 . . . 3rd Street. “The Wyoming Department of Transportation was already going to be doing a project. And when they’re already going to be doing a project, they’re going to be doing public process. They especially like it when you can help them with public process.”
Some of those Third Street improvements will draw from the tactical urbanist toolkit—public artworks, for example—as a bid to signal to drivers that they’re driving through (or one street over from) a funky and walkable downtown filled with indie bookstores and craft beer saloons and one witchy herb shop. Laramie is missing out on a lot of potential sales tax revenue from travelers hauling ass past town instead of rambling along the historic Lincoln Highway tours that the Laramie Visitor’s Center put together. Take the recent solar eclipse: Bar and restaurant owners did a brisk business over the weekend leading up to the Solar Super Bowl. But lots of drivers heading north for the totality zone may have skipped through without ever realizing they were missing an artsy college town.
Even more critical to Laramie’s survival is capturing more value from the economic activity generated by students at the nearby university. Unlike the rest of Wyoming—which lives and dies by the boom and bust of oil and gas—Laramie depends on the University of Wyoming. But despite the honor of hosting the state’s only university (to say nothing of glorious Cowpokes football), UW is a mixed blessing for Laramie. The city depends on sales taxes to thrive, while Albany County lives by property taxes. The University of Wyoming pays neither.
“It’s not just a warm fuzzy conversation about spending money in your community,” Sherwood says. “It really does come down to, ‘Do you want that pothole fixed? Do you want that playground maintained so that Johnny has a place to hang out?’”
By some standard indicators of urban vitality, Laramie is ideally positioned for success. It has the highest population of degree holders for any city in the state, and the median age of residents is a sprightly 25. Those virtues aside, Albany County is the poorest county per capita in Wyoming. “We don’t have any dead dinosaurs,” Sherwood says, and thus no fossil-fuel royalties.
So Laramie needs to make more progress in cashing in on its demographic advantages. “We have limited resources, time, and human capital to put into economic vitality efforts. Where we target matters,” says Anne Alexander, an economist and the associate vice president for undergraduate education at the University of Wyoming. “The boost we could give to proven demand sectors would help us retain our younger demographic. That’s vital to our thriving as a community. If we can show the potential market, we can use a rifle rather than a shotgun, if you will.”
According to a February 2017 retail analysis, Laramie “leaks” $387 million per year in total retail sales to nearby Cheyenne or Fort Collins in Colorado (and of course Amazon and the like). Those missed opportunities add up to more than $1 million in lost revenue each year, a gap that is otherwise hard for the city to make up.
This leakage is very much a Wyoming thing—the biggest towns of the least-populated U.S. state tend to the hug the border. “Most of our population—except Casper—live closer to the next state than to each other,” Alexander says. “Our northern populations head to Montana and South Dakota. Our western friends head to Utah and Idaho. Our eastern border dwellers go to Nebraska. And down south, we head to Colorado.”
Trains still whistle through Laramie at quite a clip—maybe four or five an hour. But the future of the city rests more and more on projects like the planned Big Hollow Food Co-op expansion, the first infill development project in the city in some 40 years. The Wyoming Business Council gave the Laramie Main Street Alliance a $3 million grant to develop the project. It’s such a big deal that the city’s set up a webcam for residents to watch live as the construction unfolds.
The entire tilt of the local economy is about making Laramie a friendly spot—to build on the restaurant boom the city experiences every time Wyoming hosts a home game. West of Third Street, it’s working, from the public-art program to the Laramie Mural Project. Improving Third Street is more than a chance to make Laramie feel even homier. It’s an effort to safeguard the city’s livelihood.
“Some people say tongue-in-cheek that Wyoming is 20 or 30 years behind the times,” Sherwood says. “But we are struggling to have enough for fire, parks, basic amenities. We have to be scrappy.”