While it may look like nothing has been happening at the site of the former Hitching Post Inn, work has not stopped for the remediation of a former Cheyenne and Wyoming icon once known for hosting state legislators, movie stars, musicians, and even five United States presidents.
The former Hitching Post site is being prepped for an intense summer of construction, which will likely see not just one but two hotels begin to go vertical at the site, along with a coffee bar and a restaurant.
“Right now, it’s all kind of the fun underground stuff that nobody sees,” Swagger Construction owner Robert Swagger told Cowboy State Daily. “There were some delays waiting for BOPU to kind of approve underground utilities, and we got those back probably around July or August.”
BOPU stands for Board of Public Utilities. Once Swagger Construction had those permits in hand teams moved in immediately to finish that infrastructure ahead of summer construction, setting the stage for more visible work on the hotel.
“We’re currently finishing up the installation of the new sewer line, and then we’re running the rest of the unit utilities in preparation for the hotel that’s looking to go vertical in May.”
Once construction season hits, Swagger expects activity at the site to pick up dramatically.
“Stuff is going to be moving pretty rapidly over there,” he said. “Over the course of the next few months, as we’re getting into the heavy building season, and like I mentioned, we’ve got one hotel that’s wanting to move in at the end of May and start getting their site ready to go vertical that summer.”
But there’s also another hotel in the works for the same site that is now in the construction drawing phase. Swagger said he is bidding on the construction for that site as well.
“They still have aspirations of trying to start building their site this year as well,” Swagger said.
That would be two hotel construction sites going at the same time on the site.
The Hitching Post was once so popular with legislators back in its heyday, it became known as the second capitol of Wyoming. While legislators did not vote at this second capitol, many a vote was captured there amid drinks and camaraderie.
Lobbyists, among them Jonathan Downing, who was then employed by Wyoming Contractors Association, even set up shop at the location.
“Our offices were just off the lobby, and a great location to ‘conveniently’ bump into legislators as they checked into the hotel,” he has told Cowboy State Daily.
Downing believes the Hitching Post helped knit legislators together, despite their many differences, which made the atmosphere at the capitol less contentious.
“It is that atmosphere which I hope we can get back to as a Wyoming community,” he said. “That Hitching Post atmosphere instilled the Wyoming civility for which we are known, and a civility I trust we will see in the future.”
Along with many Wyoming political dignitaries, the Hitching Post also hosted movie stars like Christopher Walken and Jeff Bridges, when they were on their way to film “Heaven’s Gate,” based on the infamous Johnson County War. George Burns, Gracie Allen, and former Mr. Universe and Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno were among other famous guests.
The Hitching Post also hosted five who either were or became U.S. presidents. These guests included Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
The establishment was originally called the Lincoln Court and started out with just 25 rooms in 1927. As it grew in popularity, cars came along, and its owner Paul Smith renamed it the Hitching Post Inn.
But the dominoes started to fall for the hotel after Smith sold it. One of the owners along the way found they couldn’t afford to renovate the hotel as they’d planned, so, instead, they cooked up a scheme in 2010 to burn the hotel down for the $13.6 million insurance policy. The principal of that little plan was sentenced to six years for the arson.
With so much of the historic property already destroyed, there was nowhere to go but down. There would be two more fires at the location, in 2019 and 2021, sealing the hotel’s fate.
A New Day
Swagger is originally from the Big Horn-Sheridan area. After Swagger Construction shifted its headquarters to Cheyenne, he heard many stories of the ruined hotel, and what a grand place it used to be.
“I would talk to folks in the community who, you know, went to weddings there, had their first job there, and it seemed like everybody locally as well as regionally had some form of connection to it and remembers it,” he said. “So, my original thought was just to renovate it.”
At that time, there were five structures on the property, many with fire damage. And, while the properties had been gated off, Swagger said there were transients coming and going, as well, sometimes doing additional damage.
“As I dug deeper into it, we found out (the buildings) were loaded with asbestos,” he said. “And so, it had been sitting at that time for about 10 years without anything being done.”
The cost of demolition, including the required asbestos abatement, put the project out of reach, Swagger said.
“It was upwards of, you know, about $2.5, $3 million dollars just for (demolition),” he said, before anything could be built. “So, from a development standpoint, it was really tough to make it pencil, which is why it was sitting there for so long.”
Getting it to pencil out would take help from Cheyenne, in the form of a Tax Increment Financing District (TIF).
Borrowing From The Future To Create A Future
Tax Increment Financing Districts are meant for situations like the Hitching Post property, Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins told Cowboy State Daily.
“If you’re talking about urban renewal and fixing blight to restore economic vitality, there’s no question that was the poster boy place to do it,” Collins said. “That’s why I really wanted to start with that one. Everybody can see the benefits of it.”
Collins said depending on how well this works out, there are other locations a TIF could be used to help revitalize blighted properties in Cheyenne.
“We’ll see how it goes over the years,” he said. “But I am excited about the fact we’re able to use a tool to fix a community problem that’s been there for more than a decade.”
TIF Districts have been controversial in some communities because taxing entities are worried about losing future tax revenue.
But, Collins pointed out, the Hitching Post property has been blighted for a decade or so. No tax revenue was going to happen at the location without the TIF District to jump start things.
That is, in fact, the whole concept behind the TIF, which uses the estimated tax revenue from a particular development as the basis for a loan to the developer to cover the up-front infrastructure costs needed to get a property back on track.
“There would be no tax dollars except for this project,” Collins said. “All the studies say that once the TIF is over, you know, within about seven years, you make up all the dollars that you would have lost, and then you move forward. From my perspective, it’s a short time — I know 25 years sounds like a lot of time, but it’s not that long and look what you can do. It’s going to be an amazing improvement.”
Hynds Hole Could Be Next
This same concept could also be used to address the “Hynds Hole,” next to the historic Hynds Building, Collins said.
“This year will be 20 years for that,” he said. “It’s been there for 20 years.”
A developer is now working on a plan to remediate the building and fill in the hole, which has become an eyesore right in the middle of Cheyenne’s downtown.
“We’re going to use a TIF to help do that,” Collins said. “It’s a small part, you know, it’s a huge project,” he said. “These kind of projects take a lot of little pieces added together to make the whole happen. So, I’m excited that we have that tool.”
Collins said he could not yet say who is working on the Hynds building.
“They’re a local developer that’s had a lot of success, but they’re not ready to be public yet,” he said. “They’re still working on their plans.”
Collins said he had met with them recently, however, and he feels based on that meeting that they’re making “really good progress.”
“The Hynds building has been empty for somewhere between 30 and 40 years,” Collins said. “I know there’s been a little art on the first floor, but really the building has been empty, not a productive part of our economy, over that period of time.”
Filling the building up will make a huge difference to downtown Cheyenne, Collins said.
“It’ll help our restaurants, it’ll help our local shops,” he said. “It’ll provide activity that will just lift the boats for all of the businesses of downtown, so it’s really a critical project for us.”