An abandoned century-old livery stable on South Ash Street would make a great home for theater, dance, artists, musicians and other cultural events, a theater director said Tuesday.

"What is a barn but a theater waiting to happen," Bill Conte said.

Conte wants the barn to be city-owned and maintained by the artists, actors and others who would use it.

But Conte now has competition from people willing to pay for it.

"We've had three serious purchase inquiries since Tuesday," Casper Community Development Director Liz Becher said Thursday. "Serious" as in meaning people are willing to pay full price if not more.

Tuesday, the Casper City Council voted 5-3 to accept bids from small businesses for two city-owned properties flanking the 14,000-square-foot livery stable property appraised at $340,000.

That was a far different outcome for the properties than the goal three years ago when the city paid $3 million for the former Plains Furniture building in the 300 block of South David Street and the adjacent lots -- the livery stable, the former Ka-Lark's Gymnasium studio, and the former Milo's Toyota body shop -- on the same block on South Ash Street. The city wanted to raze the buildings for parking.

Then council members and others found some historic buildings -- a 1920s-era Chevrolet dealership for one -- hidden under the drywall of the furniture store.

With a community goal of historic preservation in mind, the city put up for sale the three buildings.

The city received bids on two of them, but not the livery stable.

During the two-and-a-half-hour public hearing before Tuesday's vote, Conte and several others noted the importance of the arts and their contribution to a community with economic, cultural and other benefits -- goals more lofty that the original idea for a parking lot or the more recent interest in a $70 million hotel-conference center.

Conte, a theater history instructor at Casper College and artistic director of the Theater of the Poor, pitched his idea for more arts -- and a multi-purpose theater -- downtown, but not before introducing students and community members he's taught.

"These are the young people for whose sake we must preserve the character and integrity of the Old Yellowstone District," he said.

That meant keeping the old buildings for small businesses and opposing a conference center, he said.

"Nothing sends the message more clearly that Casper is a progressive, forward-looking community than a commitment to the arts and culture, not merely at the private and not-for-profit levels, but at the municipal level as well," Conte said. "And ladies and gentlemen, the model for this exists in cities and towns across the country."

Becher said the city won't be dealing with the future of the livery stable until after the New Year. The city staff, with the approval of City Council, will need to draft a request for proposal for those who want to bid on it.

If the city does sell it, that may not end what Conte wants to do, Becher said. "There may be a fit in the community, or some other place (downtown)."

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