From Blight to Bling: The Rawlins Revival

The Strand in downtown Rawlins. Wyoming Business Council Photo

About 10 years ago, if we’re being honest, downtown Rawlins wasn’t much of a destination.  

“Back in 2006, we had a lot of slum and blight in the downtown,” said Pam Thayer, the executive director of the Rawlins Downtown Development Authority/Main Street. “There were a lot of deteriorating buildings and empty spaces; victims of boom-and-bust cycles and continual transition periods.”

But since becoming a Wyoming Main Street community, which is an advocacy and training program of the Wyoming Business Council, Rawlins has become a shining example of downtown revivals happening across the nation. 

“Step by step, we experienced small wins, and then bigger wins like establishing the Rainbow Teton Entrepreneur Center,” Thayer said. “And we just kept having more wins.”

In 2010, Thayer began what would become a nearly decade-long project to restore the facades of dozens of downtown buildings. 

Both the Rainbow Teton and the façade projects were funded in part by the Wyoming Business Council. 

Then, in 2014, Thayer applied for a Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA) on behalf of downtown Rawlins. 

“We didn’t win that year, but the National Main Street Center actually created a brand-new category called ‘One to Watch’ and gave us that distinction,” Thayer recalled. “They encouraged us to apply again in 2015.”

So, she did apply, and Rawlins won, becoming the first GAMSA winner in the northern Rocky Mountain region. 

“GAMSA is like the Oscars of the downtown revitalization world,” she said. “We were so excited.” 

And now, The Strand Theater, a historic landmark in downtown Rawlins built in 1919, is one of 20 finalists up to win a share of $2 million in historic preservation funding from National Geographic’s Vote Your Main Street contest.  

The contest is designed to raise awareness about the importance of historic places in communities and engage the public in preserving them. This year’s contest places special emphasis on the contribution of women in Main Street communities across the country. 

“The Strand project fit perfectly into the parameters of the contest,” Thayer said. “It’s owned by a woman, and Wyoming itself has played an important role in women’s history, being the first state to allow women to vote.” 

From now until Oct. 29, the public can vote for their favorite projects up to five times per day, after a quick registration process. The projects with the most votes will win up to $150,000 of the $2 million total.  

If awarded, the funding would be used to finish restoring the façade of The Strand, including its historic marquee. Art and culture are huge economic drivers in downtown districts, and restoring The Strand could make an enormous impact in Rawlins. 

“Small-town Rawlins doesn’t have the higher population behind it that the other projects do, but we are proud and powerful Wyomingites, and I’m hopeful that the whole state will rally together and make this happen,” Thayer said. “The Strand deserves some love from Wyoming.”