At the Plains Trading Post Restaurant in Douglas, pump jacks dot the decor as a tribute to the real machines scattered throughout the county. They pump money into the local economy as often as they pump black crude.
Charlie Hegglund, a third-generation owner, said rig hands frequent the Plains Trading Post Restaurant. He buys a lot of steak and potatoes to make them feel welcome – and for good reason.
“We’re pretty dependent on them right now,” Hegglund said.
The signs of the Converse County oil boom are everywhere. “No vacancy” outside hotels, “hiring all positions” on restaurant doors and even “oily clothes” above laundromat washers.
Between fiscal years 2010 and 2011, Converse County surpassed every other county in the state with a 32.6 percent increase in sales tax revenue, according to a Wyoming Sales, Use and Lodging Tax Revenue Report.
Boom is a business boon
The Plains Trading Post opened just before the energy bust in the 1980s and has been hanging on since. Hegglund said he worried when the boom slowed shortly after starting in 2009, because he had started to reinvest in the establishment. However, he breathed easily when business returned last summer.
The wave of customers prompted Hegglund to “constantly” hire employees; he added 10 between the hotel and restaurant in the past year.
“It’s usually just after dark when we start really getting slammed,” he said. “In the evenings you’ve got to get extra help.”
Erin James, the owner of Big D’s BBQ in Douglas, said she hasn’t needed to hire extra help but has seen a boost in her catering business. Barbecue is another food in high demand among the oil and gas crews — and Big D’s delivers.
“We usually have some catering but not as much as they’ve brought to us,” James said.
She said workers order out almost once a week and the business has benefited from the extra mouths.
Cindy Porter, Executive Director of the Converse Area New Development Organization (CANDO), has observed the same trend and said community events have also grown.
“The restaurants seem busier,” she said. “I think the retail shops are seeing more activity, and we certainly have had people come to our events.”
Other businesses such as convenience, liquor and hardware stores also seem to have benefited from an uptick in customers, Porter said.
Packing people in
Glenrock resident Dennis Voyzey, 65, remembers the energy boom of the ‘70s and recognizes the early signs. He sees people moving to town en masse, welding trucks on the road and drilling wells opening all over.
While retail and housing markets in Glenrock have experienced a slightly similar effect to those in Douglas, Voyzey said the town could see more of the boom’s business if drilling moves westward, as predicted.
“It hasn’t started to reach me yet but it will,” he said.
The housing market at that time had limited supply and high demand, which made for high prices, a situation that has become familiar to Douglas area residents in recent years.
Converse County Commissioner Jim Willox, a real estate agent for Re/Max in Douglas, said the available housing sells fast and rental rates are “close to historic highs.”
There were only nine rentals listed in the Douglas classifieds the first week of March. A two-bedroom apartment was priced at $900 and a two-bedroom mobile home was $725.
“Our total market inventory is down from previous years,” Willox said. “So that affects the market as well in that the variety of selection is not as large as many buyers would like.”
Douglas resident Shari Cooper, 60, rented out a trailer house in Lone Tree Village Mobile Home until someone offered to buy it. She received about 20 calls in a two-week period when the place was advertised, and she said most prospective tenants were not local residents.
“It just seems like there’s been a lot of people looking for places to live,” she said.
Hegglund said the Plains Motel has sheltered workers from many of the oil-rich states such as Texas, Colorado, North Dakota and Oklahoma. But with the Bakken Shale play in North Dakota attracting more roughnecks, Hegglund said he’s seen people coming from as far as Chicago.
“A lot of people are trying to break into the oil field,” he said.
Converse County Commissioner Mike Colling, former owner of the Higgins Hotel in Glenrock, said business prospered before he sold the hotel in late 2012. In years prior, hotel occupancy grew along with the drilling of oil and gas wells.
“We were renting rooms for a lot of the workers in the area,” he said.
Porter said the same was true for most of Converse County. Hotel business increased steadily when the drilling started, leveled off, and recently made a resurgence.
“Right now, our hotels are full,” Porter said.
As a result, the tourism board’s revenue from the county lodging tax increased 43 percent between fiscal years 2011 and 2012. It decreased by 6 percent between 2012 and 2013, although Porter said the loss may be related to a fire at the Motel 6 in Douglas that has kept the hotel closed since late 2012.
More money, more projects
In the past two years, Converse County traffic has become heavier – in more ways than one.
Willox said the number of vehicles on county roads has swelled, with a large portion of traffic coming from oversized trucks. This has taken a toll on some of the gravel roads, which weren’t built to carry the current traffic load.
“We have been working both with the companies and our road and bridge department to try to stay on top of it,” Willox said.
The department started a permit system for oversized vehicles on March 1 and has experimented with new techniques such as calcium chloride applications, which binds the dust on gravel roads. They occasionally collaborate with energy companies that dump extra gravel and assist in leveling the roads.
Willox said the expanded, boom-generated tax base will help the county take on the infrastructure projects.
The county increased its road and bridge operating budget, which does not include equipment purchases or special projects, in the past few years. The roads budget totaled $2 million for fiscal year 2011, $2.3 million for fiscal year 2012 and $3 million for the current fiscal year. In all, Willox said the county has spent about $6 million to $7 million on its roads.
“We’ve upgraded some of the equipment,” he said. “We’ve added an employee or two. We’re looking at maybe adding more.”
As a real estate agent, Willox said he’s witnessed a growth in housing projects, as well. The increase in demand has prompted the construction of a number of multi-family homes, and many single-family homes are planned.
“We have apartments that are going up, some new housing,” Porter said. “We have some other businesses that have opened. We have only a couple of empty storefronts in our downtown area right now.”
Cooper, who works in the business office at the Converse County School District, said full rooms are also noticeable in Douglas schools. Five modular buildings and movable walls that divide one classroom into two have been used to accommodate growing enrollment in lower grades.
“There’s classrooms in spots that there never used to be classrooms,” Cooper said.
The new $9.1 million Douglas Upper Elementary School will open this summer to better distribute the primary and intermediate classes. It is being built next to the current intermediate school and can hold up to 300 students.
With an influx of new families, Superintendent Dan Espeland said enrollment has continued to grow over the years, particularly among the primary and intermediate schools. It’s a trend with no end in sight, and Espeland isn’t complaining.
“It’s a good problem to have,” he said.