Planning for a future downtown

Sheridan’s downtown has become a thriving commercial hub that showcases the city’s history while featuring dozens of stores, restaurants, artwork and cafes for shoppers to explore. As both a tourist attraction and an amenity for residents, downtown is one of the city’s major assets.

Despite the district’s richness, though, Sheridan’s downtown is going to have to change, and soon.

An impending combination of market trends, demographic shifts and physical renovations will transform the city’s downtown in the near future. How the community responds to that reality will decide whether that transformation is for better or worse.

Forces of change

The Wyoming Department of Transportation will tear up Main Street, from Burkitt to Dow streets, as part of a pavement resurfacing project in 2023. The city of Sheridan has launched an initiative, the Downtown Sheridan Streetscape Project, to explore ways the city can make improvements to downtown in conjunction with that resurfacing.

When consultants from Charlier Associates, a transportation planning firm, and Community Builders, a nonprofit community consulting firm, visited Sheridan in April to assist with the streetscape project, they concluded that though Sheridan’s downtown was thriving, it would have to adapt to remain that way.

The consultants said the challenges posed to Sheridan’s downtown will likely result from two approaching trends. The first is the increasing prevalence of online shopping, which takes more customers from brick-and-mortar businesses each year.

P.J. Treide, who owns Bighorn Design Studio, has also expressed concern about the impact online shopping can have on downtown retail businesses. He warned that 150,000 small-town retail jobs have disappeared in the last three years and Sheridan will feel that impact as well if it doesn’t adapt.

The second trend the consultants said downtown will have to contend with is an older group of business owners, many of whom will likely retire in coming years and force the downtown to adjust to the loss of established businesses as well as the potential for more vacant storefronts.

Solutions to those challenges have to be intertwined. Luring shoppers away from online outlets will require an active and vibrant downtown that includes a dynamic group of businesses. That will require the city to establish itself as an attractive destination for businesses and avoid vacant store fronts, which limit downtown activity and represent unrealized city resources. Making downtown attractive to businesses returns to maintaining an effective business community.

Place making

The recommendations the streetscape consultants made to secure downtown’s future largely centered around placemaking, which would attempt to create downtown attractions that could pull shoppers away from their computers and encourage them to spend more time downtown. Much of the discussion about the streetscape project has centered on placemaking strategies as a result.

Sandy Baird, a local architect and planner who sits on several community development organizations, said the solution is creating more downtown amenities, such as more sidewalk seating, outdoor retail displays or more outdoor event space.   

The key, Baird said, will be making downtown more attractive to pedestrians.

“When I say more attractive, I don’t just mean beautiful, I mean a more desirable place,” Baird said. “We have to make Main Street a destination to be, not just a place to shop. That takes space.”

The city could look to side streets to create that space, or use portable sidewalk extensions, which are known as “parklets” and are placed in parking stalls to temporarily create more sidewalk space. However, Baird said he believes the most effective way to create more space would be expanding sidewalks on Main Street.

“I’m not aware of any other single thing that we could do to make Main Street more pedestrian friendly, other than expand our sidewalks, which are now too narrow to accommodate their optimum function,” Baird said. “The space next to a (storefront) is no man’s land for walking, but valuable space for small tables, for clothes racks, and so on and so forth.”

The streetscape draft plan, which the consultants submitted to the city, made similar suggestions, but the methods laid out in the report have proven divisive within the community.

Significantly expanding sidewalks would require the city to reduce the number of traffic lanes on Main Street. In the streetscape plan, the consultants offer several different options for the city to consider, but the configuration that would result in the most significant lane reduction, and so the largest sidewalk expansion, would reduce Main Street to two traffic lanes, with a third turn-lane at intersections.

That suggestion, however, inspired a flood of public backlash, mostly through social media, shortly after the draft plan was created, and the city publicly declared that option was off the table.

Baird, though, believes that decision was premature.

“Increasing the pedestrian friendliness of downtown Sheridan is the greatest thing that we can do for this city,” Baird said.

Reducing the lanes would require the city to first conduct a traffic study and prove that the move would not create traffic clogs. Baird said it would be foolish to dismiss lane reductions without formally exploring the effects of the change.

He fears the streetscape project may prove to be the city’s last best chance to change course.

“If we don’t take the opportunity during this project to do whatever we can do to make the Main Street more pedestrian friendly…then we won’t revisit this scale of a project for at least the next two generations,” Baird said.

The city is also considering the possibility of restructuring Grinnell Plaza to create more downtown pedestrian space. The extent of that restructuring, however, is still up for discussion. Baird and Treide, whose business borders the plaza, have supported an option that would close Grinnell Plaza to vehicle traffic completely, opening it for more seating and event space.

Other businesses have expressed concern, though, that eliminating parking in front of the stores surrounding Grinnell Plaza would hurt those businesses.

Theresa Rice, owner of Java Moon, on the other hand, said she thinks improving traffic flow and creating more parking downtown, not reducing lanes, are the most important goals for the streetscape project.

“The comment I have heard is people want to come downtown, they want to grab their friends and have coffee, have lunch, and be together…but when they can’t park, or have trouble doing that, that is the difficulty,” Rice said.

Though Java Moon is not a retail business, and therefore won’t be directly affected by trends like online shopping, its business will be affected by overall downtown activity.

“We are a tight community, so if (other stores) see less people coming downtown, it’s going to affect me,” Rice said. “And if people aren’t drinking coffee, it’s going to affect them. It kind of goes hand-in-hand.”

Discussions are ongoing, but the community has yet to settle on a solution. WYDOT will expect the city to provide a formal plan for the streetscape project within the next year, so the community will have to choose a path forward soon.

Business Improvements

Downtown businesses don’t necessarily have to wait for, or rely on, structural changes, however.

Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce CEO Dixie Johnson said evolving downtown does not mean overhauling it; the city can look to build on what is already working.

“I think we already have a great downtown, so I think we have to be really careful that we don’t think the next greatest thing is going to benefit us,” Johnson said. “We have to understand that maybe what we have can keep benefiting us…but I do think we are really going to have to encourage businesses to expand what they already offer.”

Treide, for instance, has had success supplementing his physical business with a robust online presence. That presence involves online marketing   and engagement, particularly through social media, as well selling products online.

The online business and brick-and-mortar business have proven to be mutually reinforcing — the online and social media presence has led to more customers visiting Bighorn Design Studio, but the store can also function as a living billboard and encourage pedestrians to make purchases online later.

There is an education component as well. Johnson said her organization tries to communicate the importance of shopping locally whenever possible. If more residents buy in to that message, they could amount to a more consistent customer base for local businesses.

Johnson also said the community can look to solve vacant storefronts or business turnovers through education and by utilizing some of the resources already present in the community. Young entrepreneurs could contribute to the future of Sheridan’s downtown, but in order to encourage entrepreneurship, Johnson said the community will have to present retail ownership as a viable, and fruitful, career option through education, in addition to featuring successful retail businesses as models.

She added that the community and aspiring entrepreneurs can take advantage of resources like the Small Business Development Center and the Wyoming Technology Business Center.

Downtown businesses could also benefit from more residents living along Main Street.

Both Baird and Johnson also said that creating spaces for people to live downtown and along Main Street could provide downtown businesses with a steady stream of customers, particularly during winter months when tourism dips. Baird and Johnson both suggested that businesses and property owners explore opportunities to create housing or apartments above downtown businesses.

“If we can get a critical mass of population actually living on Main Street, it will not only increase the vibrancy year-round, but it can also entice shops to perhaps stay open later,” Baird said.

Ensuring the future of the city’s downtown will probably entail some combination of the proposed solutions and include solutions that haven’t been proposed publicly yet. All of the community stakeholders will have to decide on a coherent strategy for Sheridan’s downtown; the worst thing the community can do is nothing.

The challenges facing Sheridan are significant, but they are also solvable. If Sheridan responds as a community, the daunting trends facing its businesses could become chances for the city to make its downtown stronger.

By |Oct. 29, 2018|

About the Author:

Michael Illiano joined The Sheridan Press as a government and politics reporter in February 2018. He is originally from New Jersey and graduated from Boston University. Email him at michael.illiano@thesheridanpress.com.

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