It wasn’t long ago that friends would make some disparaging remark when I mentioned I was heading to Casper.
But residents have long known the secrets that make Casper special. There’s nearby Casper Mountain that offers mountain biking, Nordic and alpine skiing right on the edge of town. The North Platte River has a man-made whitewater park for adventure in city limits and its fishing is famous among anglers.
But it was only in recent years, it seems, that Casper has gotten recreation respect from outsiders, thanks to concerted efforts from residents looking to diversify the economy and improve their quality of life..
Last week Peaks to Plains looked at Duluth, Minnesota, a town once defined by manufacturing and mining, until the iron in the mountains was mined out and industrial demand withered, leaving the community to languish and then reinvent itself.
In Wyoming, an almost simultaneous economic bust hit the oil, gas and coal industries. The economic downturn brought layoffs. It also impacted service industry businesses that had benefited from Casper’s central location and the energy industry.
While Casper’s story varies from Duluth’s, the communities also have striking similarities, from their long dependence on specific industries with finite lifespans, to the natural amenities the landscape offers. And Casper, like Duluth did a decade earlier, is trying to figure out how to use its mountain, rivers and trails to enhance its economy.
Last year the city of Casper installed trail counters on the city’s pathway. In a year they recorded 318,000 trail users, said Angela Emery, executive director of Platte River Trails, the non-profit organization that develops pathways in Casper.
“That was affirming to me,” she said. “That’s a lot of people getting out and using these facilities.”
Platte River Trails started its efforts for pathways in Casper in the 1980s. People weren’t spending time by the river back then. It was polluted, the areas dirty and dominated by the Amoco oil refinery in the middle of town. That early vision of a pathway system along a river winding through town is more important to Casper now than ever, she said. It lures people to stop on their way to other destinations.
But pathways also provide a quality-of-life factor important to people who get to choose where they want to live, she said.
Quality of life is one area the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance is focused on as it works to attract new businesses to the area, said Charles Walsh, CEO. “We recognize that we have phenomenal natural resources and amenities,” he said.
When courting new businesses, companies often ask about the airport and interstate. But they also want to know about things like trails and fishing.
“Quality of life is becoming a bigger card that we’re playing,” Walsh said.
Many of the recreation opportunities have always been there, but recent efforts to market them have raised Casper’s reputation for outdoor opportunities, he said.
A 2012 report from the Outdoor Industry Associated found outdoor recreation generates $4.5 billion annually in consumer spending in Wyoming; $1.4 billion wages and salaries; $300 million in state and local tax revenue and 50,000 direct Wyoming jobs. It also found 71 percent of Wyoming residents participate in some form of outdoor recreation.
“We know it’s extremely important, especially because tourism is the No. 2 industry in the state — especially outdoor tourism,” said Nephi Cole natural resource policy advisor for Gov. Matt Mead.“But the downturn has allowed this area to become more into focus. We think if there’s a silver lining, that’s a big one. It gives us an opportunity to talk about this.”
Cole, who is working for the governor’s advisory task force on recreation, said the group thinks of recreation opportunities as an asset for attracting new businesses. Wyoming’s been particularly successful in bringing firearms companies, like Magpul Industries and Thunder Beast Arms Corporation, to the state, in part because of the access to hunting and fishing employees have as a “fringe benefit”, he said.
While many people associate recreation with Wyoming, they think of the National Parks. Communities like Casper have to find a way to let the world know what they offer. They aren’t going to compete with a town like Jackson, but instead need to develop their own identities.
John Giantonio, director of sports and events for VisitCasper, has spent his three years with the town’s convention and visitor’s bureau marketing Casper’s outdoor opportunities. Casper Mountain, with its easy access from the heart of town, its trails and ski area, was under-promoted when Giantonio took the job.
He’s helped oversee projects like making sure bike trails were clearly signed, but also hosting events, like a now-annual June endurance bike race on the mountain. The race draws people from Montana, Colorado and South Dakota. Last year several riders told him they had no idea Casper had such beautiful trails. He surprised and intrigued a potential visitor when he told her about the Nordic trail lit at night.
Moab, Utah, Giantonio said, used to be a little dumpy town. Now it’s a famous destination known for its desert hiking and mountain biking.
“That didn’t happen overnight and Casper isn’t going to change overnight,” Giantonio said.
He doesn’t have a timeline for when people will see Casper as a destination or a year-round mountain town, as he calls it. But recreation is key to diversifying the economy and can provide an impact for future generations, he said.
“I think we can all agree that having all the eggs in the oil and gas basket isn’t the best thing to do,” he said.