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Casper at the crossroads

Photos courtesy Casper CVB

Casper sits just slightly east of center in the rectangle that is Wyoming, the nation’s 10th-largest state but also the least populated. Its 56,000 residents make it 3,000 people short of being the largest city in the state. But because Cheyenne, the state’s largest city, is in the far southeast corner of the state, Casper is the expansive state’s natural gathering point.

Construction of a convention center has been debated for nearly a decade as Casper city officials and community leaders try to decide what the city needs, who should build it and where a conference facility should go.

In May, Narender Taneja, president and CEO of JJM Group Hotels, announced he would resurrect his proposal to build a 200-room Crowne Plaza hotel and a 48,000-square-foot conference center on the site of a former Amoco refinery on the edge of town.

“It would definitely be a good thing,” said Daniel Fulton, director of sales for Visit Casper.

The city now has 2,600 hotel rooms, including five full-service hotels, and about 180,000 square feet of meeting space.

A question of capacity

“We have convention and meeting space here now, but it’s somewhat dated, and there are times when our capacity is pushed pretty hard. A few extra rooms could be a good thing,” said Fulton.

City officials started discussing building a conference center in the early 2000s because the city was losing convention business, said Richie Bratton, project manager for Refined Properties, a local real estate development company that is the project developer and property manager for JJM Group Hotels’ proposed hotel and conference center.

JJM Group Hotels owns, operates and manages Hilton and La Quinta Inn-branded hotels in Wyoming and California.

Several years ago, JJM’s Taneja proposed building a conference center at the Casper Events Center, where most larger conferences are now held, but the project ran into problems securing land and financing.

Fast-forward to 2011, when the city issued a request for proposals for a conference center.
The city received three proposals, including one from Taneja that called for a hotel and conference center on the former refinery site, known as Platte River Commons.

Three varied proposals

The three proposals were so varied that city leaders brought in a consultant to do a market study. That study suggested that the conference facility should be downtown and that a public-private partnership should finance it. But such a project got mixed support, so in March, city leaders announced they would no longer take the lead on a downtown conference center and would instead leave such a project to the private sector, opening the door to the resurrection of the JJM Group Hotels’ project at the Platte River Commons.

“If we build something, people will come here, because we’re kind of a hub for the entire area,” Bratton said. “The market is demanding something like that.

“We have space in town, but it is kind of older, outdated and outsized. We’ve been losing a lot of conferences basically because we don’t have sufficient facilities for them to go in.”

The 17-acre site hugs the North Platte River west of Three Crowns Golf Course, about a mile west of downtown. The site plan leaves room to expand the conference center as well as a few acres on either side for infill development.

The proposed conference center would have a 21,000-square-foot ballroom and a variety of meeting rooms and flexible meeting space, Bratton said. Plans also call for a spa and a restaurant with an outdoor lounge.

But the $38 million project, about $13.6 million for the conference center and $24 million for the hotel, is far from a sure thing. Approvals and financing are pending.