EVANSTON — During the Uinta County Commission work session on Tuesday, May 21, commissioners discussed the old Wyoming State Hospital (WSH) buildings that will be vacated when work is complete on the new addition, scheduled for sometime in 2020.
At the meeting, new Evanston Community Development Director Rocco O’Neill and Uinta County GIS Coordinator Gary Welling, along with Evanston Mayor Kent Williams, met with commissioners and other county officials to discuss the Wyoming State Hospital campus. Welling said that construction of the new campus continues to move along, but there is still no plan about what to do with the old buildings once they are vacated.
“The state certainly wants somebody, like the city or the county, to take them over so they can kind of wash their hands of them,” said Welling.
In addition, Welling said local officials “don’t really know what we have up there,” in terms of structural information on the old buildings. O’Neill said an informal report has been shared with officials that indicates in general terms if each building is in poor, fair or good condition, but Welling said nobody has shared a detailed report with them.
The State of Wyoming has thus far allocated no funding to do anything with the buildings.
A community meeting was held regarding the old campus during the summer of 2017, at which time the three options for the fate of the buildings were demolition, renovation or simply abandoning them, which would lead to them falling further into disrepair.
Welling said he has recently spoken with Elaina Zempel with the Wyoming Business Council, who suggested applying for grants to conduct a study on the buildings to see what is there and assess building condition.
The community meeting held in 2017, as reported in the Herald at that time, resulted in a similar suggestion, as then-Evanston City Clerk Amy Grenfell was quoted as saying that the next step would be to see if there was grant funding available to have someone assess the campus and offer suggestions as to how to move forward.
O’Neill said he has examined the Wyoming ENDOW 20-year strategic plan, which deliberately focuses on higher educational opportunities within the state, and he believes from a local economic development standpoint higher education is going to be incredibly important. He said he believes local services and amenities for the millennial generation are almost nonexistent and that generation is a huge economic driver.
O’Neill said he would like to see the local community develop a specific plan of what to do with the state-owned WSH property to take to the legislature in an effort to secure some funding to move forward. He said it’s not necessarily the local community’s role to assess the buildings or even have a plan since it’s state property but having a plan may act as leverage to get the state to do something to help diversify the local economy.
Williams said the topic has been discussed within the community for a lengthy period of time and he likes the idea of putting leverage on the state to figure it out because the community simply doesn’t have the funding or resources to take over the property.
“I think they thought they would hear from the city or the county, ‘We’ll take ‘em, we want ‘em,’” said Williams, referencing the community’s track record of successful renovation of buildings like the Roundhouse and Machine Shop. “The unfortunate thing is that has taken and continues to take an incredible amount of money,” as he noted the amount of money that would be required to renovate the WSH buildings could potentially dwarf what has been put into the railyards restoration and that even restoration grants typically require a community match that would also surpass community resources.
Williams said he appreciates O’Neill’s efforts and the “fresh set of eyes” he has brought to the discussion.
Williams and Commissioner Craig Welling said getting the state to commit to anything will require working with local legislators to apply pressure on the rest of the legislature to provide the funding and deal with the problem.
When asked about his vision or plan, O’Neill said he doesn’t really have a developed plan as of yet. “You guys know the logistics and mechanics of government,” he said. He has driven through the WSH campus to view the buildings and said he has noted some that he believes would be worth saving for historical preservation purposes.
When Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson-Kallas asked O’Neill about whether he’d like to see a community college or some type of trade school move onto the property, O’Neill said, “Everyone says community college and I can understand why because we don’t have a college of any type right now,” but he said his vision goes beyond that.
O’Neill said he would love to see the state build a second four-year university in Evanston, which would be supported by the ENDOW plan that calls for the creation of a second state university.
“ENDOW says plain as day we want a second university,” said O’Neill. “Why not Evanston?”
O’Neill said it would make sense to put a second university in Evanston because of the city’s location on I-80 as well as the proximity to the rapidly-growing Utah population. The trick, however, will be to get influential legislators on the eastern side of the state to support such an idea.
O’Neill, Williams, Gary Welling and the commissioners decided to reach out to local legislators Garry Piiparinen, Wendy Schuler, Danny Eyre, Tom Crank and Fred Baldwin and ask them to attend a future work session to continue to generate ideas and ways to move forward. O’Neill said he would reach out and ask the legislators to attend a commission work session on Tuesday, June 18, when Zempel would possibly be able to attend as well.