Coal Town Works To Rise Above Boom And Bust

Aug 25, 2017

Credit With permission from Rock Springs Main Street/Urban Renewal Agency

Urban Renewal Agency Director Chad Banks was leading a group of Rock Springs residents through a tunnel beneath the train tracks that break the downtown business district in half. The underpass doubles as an art gallery, meant to advertise local artists and lure people to explore both sides of the railroad.


The railroad gave Rock Springs its start as a coal town. Local mines fueled the trains that reached the area in the 1860s. Public Services Director Amy Allen said the city’s layout matches the scatter of those original mines.


“The coal camps, as they were called – number 1, number 2, number 6, number 4 – those were the names of the coal mines that people worked in,” Allen said. “So they didn’t have vehicles – not a lot of transportation, so they lived close to where the mine entrances were. So nothing was planned or square or straight.”


That’s why Rock Springs looks a little eclectic compared to other communities. The mines’ influence on planning is so significant that Allen said some old-timers still call certain parts of town by mine numbers, like 4 and 6. The coal business shaped the town’s culture, attracting immigrants recruited by Union Pacific. The town boasts on its website and entrance sign that its population once included 56 nationalities. In other words, it’s a blue collar town that, due to the energy industry, has problems with booms and busts.  Allen said the first sign of that was when the Jim Bridger Power Plant opened in the 1970s. 


She said, not long after, “the White Mountain Mall was built on available land that was probably close to an interstate intersection.”


Box stores and new developments filled in the space between the mall and the downtown, and I-80 distracted people from the city’s historic hub. But the economic burst didn’t last forever, and Allen said in the decades that followed, the city had to get better at planning for booms and busts. In the 1980s, they started using Abandoned Mine Lands funds to restore old buildings downtown, like the city hall and the depot.


“A lot of Rock Springs is undermined... there are coal shafts under almost every building down here,” Banks said. “And so the money was supposed to come back to communities impacted by mining and that’s how that was done.”


The downtown area is also in a floodplain, which adds some restrictions to development because of things like insurance. The fact that it’s literally in a depression also makes it challenging for downtown to be the centerpiece of the community. Banks believes it’s possible and worth the trouble.


“In all the conferences I go to, they always talk about your downtown as your front door,” Banks said. “And a lot of developers want to see how you’re taking care of your downtown because that reflects how your community is as a whole.”


Banks oversees public art projects like the murals, lunchtime concerts, and a farmer’s market, which happened the same evening as his mural tour. These days, downtown looks alive, despite a number of empty storefronts collecting pigeon poop until Banks can find a developer willing to restore them. In front of the old bank building that’s been sitting uninhabited for about 30 years, Banks told me it is often more expensive to rehabilitate a building than to construct a new one.


“Especially a building this size– we’re looking at about $4.2 million to restore this building,” he said. “You could build something with comparable square footage for less.”


A big part of Banks’ job involves working with businesses. He doles out grants so they can renovate the fronts of their buildings. In past years, he gave out loans to help them pay rent, but he said recent budget cuts have stalled that program.


Banks worked with Heidi Harvey to find a new place for her natural medicine shop that was available when her old lease ended. Harvey said the new downtown location has helped her survive as a luxury store that opened not long before the recession.


“My other location was seek-to-find,” she said. “There was physical therapy on one side and Rent-A-Center on the other. So, overall, I do have more foot traffic.”


Rock Springs resident Sam Mallicote moved to town to work at the trona mine. Walking with his kids by the mall, he said he loves the tight-knit community and access to the outdoors. But downtown didn’t factor into his decision to move here.


“I go to the parks and stuff like that, but you know, no more than anywhere else,” he said.


Banks is determined to make the downtown more relevant. On the mural tour, he explained plans to beautify one bare wall, and the dirt lot in front of it.


“We’re going to clean up this lot, do some minimal landscaping, and then put in a miniature putt-putt golf course that people can play for free,” Banks said.   


People sounded excited. Banks is hoping to make people so enthusiastic about downtown that developers will seek him out to fill those empty buildings.