How a rural Wyoming town is repurposing historic assets to spur local entrepreneurship

Downtown Rawlins
Editor's note:

Placemaking Postcards is a blog series from the Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at Brookings where policymakers and practitioners guest-author promising placemaking efforts from across the U.S. and abroad that foster connected, vibrant, and inclusive communities. In line with the principle tenets of placemaking, the goal of the series is to recognize the community as the expert, highlight voices from the field, and to create a community of learning and practice around transformative placemaking.

BannerThis September, The New York Times published an opinion piece—“Something Special Is Happening in Rural America”—that flipped the traditional narrative of modern rural America on its head. It argued that instead of homogeneous, backward places that people want to escape from, rural communities are home to deeply rooted social and emotional attachments, as well as long-overlooked signs of economic promise.

Take Rawlins, Wyo. Rawlins is a remote, rural town on the border of the Red Desert in the south-central part of the state, with a population just under 10,000. Less than two decades ago, Rawlins’s downtown vacancy was as high as 60%. Facing industry loss, population decline, and low business retention, it was not exactly the first place you associate with economic promise or a burgeoning entrepreneurial culture.

But Rawlins is shifting this narrative, using a model often employed in midsized and larger cities and adapting it to rural realities. By developing a new entrepreneurship center right on its Main Street, the town is drawing inspiration from recent research showing that proximity and peer-to-peer collaboration are key to growth and productivity, and is working to create clusters of talent, peer networks, and concentrated resources to spur its local economy.

Entrepreneurship centers help small communities catalyze peer networks, new talent, and business growth

The premise of entrepreneurship centers is simple. To provide startups with the best chance at success and help existing businesses scale up, these centers provide business owners with support, networks, and access to tailored resources. They have become a key tool for communities seeking to increase entrepreneurial activity from within, and can be found across the country, from StartingBlock in Madison, Wis. to Oakland Startup Network, in Oakland, Calif. to the Nashville Entrepreneur Center in Nashville, Tenn.

Most often, entrepreneurship centers function in large and midsized cities, in tandem with other elements of a healthy entrepreneurship ecosystem such as dynamic anchor institutions, skilled workforce and talent pipelines, and supportive public policy. There are fewer examples of these hubs in rural communities, where access to capital, proximity to major markets, and population density pose challenges to prospective entrepreneurs and to the economies of those places overall.

So how has Rawlins made it work?

A once-vacant building is now an anchor for local growth     

In 2006, the city, its local leaders, and the Rawlins Downtown Development Authority (DDA)/Main Street partnered to create the entrepreneurship center. To get started, they looked to what was already there: a long-vacant hotel and an adjacent historical commercial building along Rawlins’s Main Street. The buildings didn’t look like much—in fact, they were in such disrepair that locals nicknamed the complex the “pigeon hotel.” But to Rawlins DDA/Main Street, the properties meant possibility.

Because the vacant buildings anchored Main Street, their rehabilitation would signal that things downtown were changing for the better. And by repurposing the former hotel—once a jewel of the area—they could connect Rawlins’s nascent entrepreneurial ecosystem directly to the community’s history and distinct sense of place.

But to do so, they needed resources. In 2009, with support from advisors at the University of Wyoming, Rawlins DDA/Main Street applied for and received a $1.6 million Business Ready Community Grant. The funding allowed for a complete restoration of the two buildings (while retaining their historic character) and turned them into a multidimensional entrepreneurship center in the heart of downtown.

In 2011, they opened the center—naming it the Rainbow Te-ton Entrepreneur Center (RTEC), after the original hotel and bar from 1900. The center has since become a one-stop shop for doing business in Rawlins, with offerings including entrepreneur networking, high-tech resources, and critical business support services ranging from legal to financing to marketing. It is home to a local accounting firm, a University of Wyoming extension office, and other small businesses.

Leveraging historic assets to fuel economic activity

Across the country, there is ample precedent for this type of adaptive reuse of an underutilized asset. While dealing with vacant historical buildings can be a tricky process for cities and municipalities, examples abound of adaptive reuse projects that provide character, continuity, and a sense of uniqueness—factors that not only make a community a nice place to live, but are instrumental in crafting it into a desirable place to do business. From the Bright Center in Winchester, Va. to the Owosso Armory in Owosso, Mich. to the Empire Market in Joplin, Mo., historic structures are providing the foundation for a new era of economic activity and innovation in cities across the country.

How rural leaders can spark entrepreneurial culture in their communities

Other rural places could take a page from Rawlins’s economic playbook. Although spurring an economic and cultural shift toward an entrepreneur-centered economy is a long-term process, the strategies Rawlins DDA/Main Street and other local leaders deployed are showing signs of promise. Here’s what we can take away from Rawlins’s efforts:

  • Build from your strengths and start with what you have. Rawlins’s leadership understood that to be successful, their efforts to create sustainable, local economic growth should be based on a “grow-from-within” strategy that prioritizes supporting the existing and new entrepreneurs in their midst. They also made sure to ground their strategy in what made Rawlins unique: its geography, history, and distinct sense of place.
  • Apply “ecosystem” thinking to entrepreneurship-support efforts. On their own, one-off efforts to recruit or retain entrepreneurs tend not to be sustainable or impactful. The Rainbow Te-ton Entrepreneur Center is part of a comprehensive strategy to support a healthy downtown, which also includes public art initiatives, streetscape improvements, façade renovations, and downtown housing.
  • You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) go it alone. While Rawlins DDA/Main Street was at the forefront of the effort to rehab and launch the Rainbow Te-ton Entrepreneur Center, its ultimate success was the result of a network of partnerships that included the local municipality, the statewide Wyoming Business Council, the University of Wyoming, and the local entrepreneurs themselves.

While rural communities across the country are facing challenging economic headwinds, places such as Rawlins are a useful reminder that the future of rural America is not necessarily bleak. This message is important not only for leaders in rural areas, but for their suburban and urban counterparts as well, because, as the Times piece noted, “The future of rural is intertwined with suburban and urban outcomes by way of food production, natural resources, the economy, political movements and beyond.”

Photo credit: hakkun via Commons Wikimedia (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)