Skyscrapers in Wyoming? Well, not quite. But with the Denver area’s expansion and the growth of the larger Front Range Urban Corridor, smaller cities in that emptier state to the north—mainly Cheyenne, but now even Casper—are grappling with the possibility of becoming suburbs of Denver.
The phrase “Front Range Urban Corridor” may sound somewhat oxymoronic (isn’t the range, after all, where the deer and antelopes play?). But recent projections have the region, which extends from Pueblo to Cheyenne and comprises more than 80 percent of Colorado’s population, well on its way to becoming the country’s next important megapolitan area. Its population was 4,013,055 in 2005 and is expected to grow to more than 8 million by 2040, propelled by a diverse economy with telecommunications, tourism, defense, manufacturing, high-tech industries, and such corporate anchors as Comcast and Qwest Communications. Meanwhile, residents benefit from the actual Front Range (as in, the mountains), which are good for biking and climbing. Colorado Springs and Boulder often earn top spots on national “best places to live” lists.
All of this means the Front Range is growing at a steady clip, and the effects are being felt in Cheyenne, just an hour and a half north of Denver. Suddenly this quiet Western town isn’t quite so sleepy anymore. Cheyenne residents are commuting 45 minutes to Fort Collins, Colorado, and beyond, and Cheyenne is attracting businesses that just a decade ago passed it by. “There’s been a real zeal for growth and for diversifying our economy,” says Randy Bruns, director of Cheyenne LEADS, an economic development group. As Darren Rudloff, president of the Cheyenne Area Convention and Visitors Bureau tells it, when a restaurant scout visited Cheyenne eight years ago, he wasn’t particularly impressed. “He told the chamber of commerce director, and wrote in his notes, that this was a quiet Western dusty town; ‘We don’t need to worry about it as a potential location.’ Ironically, he’s back now doing exactly the same development that he discounted eight years ago. He told the chamber director, ‘I can’t believe the changes.’”
It’s not just an Olive Garden that’s causing a stir in the state capital. In the last few years, Lowe’s Home Improvement and Wal-Mart established regional distribution centers in Cheyenne, and in January, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) announced it will base its new, $60 million supercomputer data center in Cheyenne’s North Range Business Park, rather than at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where NCAR has many other operations. In wooing the organization, Cheyenne cited its affordable electricity rates and abundance of cheap real estate. “Couple that with a close association with the University of Wyoming,” says Bruns, “and they were able to get more computing capacity here than they could do anywhere else in the Front Range.” The research scientists will likely find the move easy on their pocketbooks. In February this year, a condominium in Boulder was selling for an average of $270,000, whereas a similar condo cost $180,000 in Cheyenne.
Around 180 miles to the north, in Wyoming’s only other city of more than 50,000, times are changing as well. Casper may not be attracting $60 million supercomputer centers, but it is hoping for a boost from a regional high-speed rail line called the Front Range Commuter Rail, which would connect Casper and Cheyenne to downtown Denver and could run as far south as Albuquerque. “The explosive growth on the Front Range has reached Cheyenne, and now there’s an opportunity for it to move even farther north,” says Casper City Councilwoman Lynn Whalen. Earlier this year, Wyoming put $250,000 towards a feasibility study on the rail line. Supporters like Pete Meyers, an administrative analyst in the Casper City Manager’s office, say the city will suffer if it doesn’t eventually connect up. “If most cities in a regional area were connected to high-speed rail and Casper wasn’t, it would make Casper less competitive,” he says. Whalen shares this view. “Do I worry that Cheyenne will explode and Casper will be left behind?” she says. “Maybe a little bit.”
But Casper and Cheyenne have hardly come to a consensus on the matter of growth. The Metropolitan Planning Organization of Cheyenne, Plan Cheyenne, conducts a citizen survey each year. In 2004, one Cheyenne resident wrote: “Let’s watch growth, let’s keep Cheyenne a great Western state, not a suburb of Denver. Do we want to have a giant Wal-Mart like Fort Collins?” In the 2006 survey, a lifelong Cheyenne resident wrote: “I have been to many other places, both in the U.S. and overseas, but I always come back to Cheyenne. I liked the smaller city and friendly people. These both are disappearing fast from our city. Growth is not always good.” And yet in 2006, one enthusiastic Cheyenne native said: “In the last 5 years I have seen nothing but growth in Cheyenne; Super Wal-mart, Wal-Mart distribution center, Home Depot, Lowes, etc…Keep up the good work and reach for more!”
The transition is never easy, no matter what the size of the town, says Whalen, the Casper city councilwoman. “Having new people move to your town, having new businesses move to your town, is always very unsettling to people who have lived there for a long time,” she says. “They’re never sure how the character of the city is going to change.” In Cheyenne, where the boom seems to be well under way, Rudloff says residents want the best of two worlds. “We’re hoping to grow into our own skin,” he says. “I think it’s safe to say that some of the residents here, while welcoming some of the larger city attributes, don’t want to become suburbia USA.”
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