In some ways, we wish it hadn't come to this. In others, it's long overdue.
On June 18, the Cheyenne Downtown Development Authority and Visit Cheyenne, the Laramie County Convention and Visitors Bureau, announced they would merge, effective July 1. The decision came on the heels of current DDA Executive Director Amber Ash announcing that she would step down from her position on June 30 after 16 months on the job.
A Memorandum of Understanding between the two organizations calls for the DDA to become a subdivision of Visit Cheyenne for up to two years, and the two boards of directors will be blended into one, while maintaining representation for both entities. According to a news release, services provided by each respective organization will not be affected.
To us, that's the key, and it's why we think that, overall, this is a good move. As Ms. Ash leaves and both boards have openings, it makes a lot of sense to save both administrative costs and the time it takes to recruit new board members.
City funding to the DDA is expected to continue, though the exact amount is apparently negotiable within a set range. But much of the uncertainty over the organization's annual budget will go away, and the handful of DDA staff members will soon become eligible for such basic benefits as health insurance and a retirement plan.
Equally important is the fact any existing overlap between the two groups can be avoided by the increased communication and coordination that will no doubt result from the merger. With current DDA Assistant Director Haylee Chenchar working closer with Visit Cheyenne President and CEO Domenic Bravo, efforts to attract people and businesses to the capital city should be approached with both the city's original core area and the rest of Cheyenne in mind.
This new arrangement also gives both groups an opportunity to step back, look at what they do and decide who should be responsible for what. For example, is it DDA's job to sponsor events, fill and water planters and hire a company to maintain the lights on 17th Street? Should the organization instead focus on supporting existing businesses by helping them improve their properties and promoting shopping in the DDA district?
All along, we've believed it should fall to staff from Cheyenne LEADS, as the city and county's economic development agency, to work to recruit businesses to the downtown core, just as much as they try to fill open land in the city's business parks. And it makes sense for the city of Cheyenne, through its Planning and Development and Public Works departments, to address street, curb and gutter infrastructure issues, rather than the DDA doing it. (After all, property owners pay city taxes, too, and that money should be funding infrastructure improvements and snow removal, not the DDA mill levy.)
When you also factor in the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce, it's easy to see how duplication of services and turf battles could be an obstacle in certain circumstances. We're not saying that's the case at this point (Ms. Ash said she thinks the relationships are better than ever), but it certainly has been in the past.
Back in 2016, we said there were too many cooks in the economic development kitchen as debate raged over how to handle the still-vacant Hynds Building and the adjacent downtown "hole" left behind by a December 2004 fire. At that time, the DDA, Chamber and LEADS all had a stake in the matter, and the controversy was over whether the proposed Children's Museum of Cheyenne should press ahead with its plans to build a new facility in the "hole" or find another location and allow the Hynds owner and developer to use the "hole" for parking and HVAC infrastructure.
Unfortunately, we were right when we predicted that plans to renovate the Hynds would fall apart and the West Lincolnway "hole" would remain unfilled. Five years later, not much has changed (except some artists using the ground floor of the Hynds and occasionally new billboards promoting the Atlas Theatre in front of the "hole"). How much of that has to do with the various economic development groups failing to get on the same page is debatable, but it seems this merger, if done right, could be the catalyst for increased communication and cooperation going forward.
Both Ms. Ash and Mr. Bravo note that this is a two-year trial merger, and it can be nullified at any time during that period with 120 days notice. Each entity will maintain its own bank accounts, and the two organizations will combine in a way that would make it easier to untangle if things don't work out as well as everyone hopes. Change is always difficult, and no doubt there will be challenges. But we believe if it's done right, this new arrangement could be a model for nonprofits such as those addressing homelessness, food insecurity and other important issues.
We wish both DDA and Visit Cheyenne leaders much success in this new endeavor, and we look forward to tracking its progress in the months to come.