WRIGHT — The town of Wright, which owes much of its 40-year history to the coal industry, is enjoying something of a renewal.
It's experiencing a boom in construction and jobs that few expected with slowdowns in the coal industry in Campbell County and Wyoming. The southern Campbell County town of roughly 2,000 people encompassing 2.7 square miles seems to be in a nearly perfect spot at nearly the perfect time.
The Wright Water and Sewer District estimates the town's population, based on those it serves in and around Wright, at 2,750 and growing. The 2010 census listed Wright with 1,870 people.
The oil and gas industry has been active in southern Campbell and Converse counties for the past year or more, making Highway 59 between Gillette and Wright one of the busiest roadways in Wyoming. The work in oil and gas in the area is likely to remain at that level for several years.
There's also a uranium project about 15 miles west of Wright and several new businesses are looking into possibly moving to the small town — enough that Brandi Beecher Harlow, the economic development coordinator for the town of Wright, is sprinting to keep up.
That coal downturn? Several Wright residents — including Mayor Tim Albin — see the industry growing again. Certainly, the work is steady now, Harlow said.
"Wright will always be a small community and a bedroom community to Gillette," she said. "But we are seeing some people considering developing here and hopefully some new businesses."
Wright got its start when the Wright family homesteaded there in 1911 and opened the area's first post office.
Years later, the Atlantic Richfield Coal Co. built much of the town's infrastructure as it was building the Black Thunder coal mine nearby in the mid-1970s.
Wright incorporated in 1985, and other than its schools built in 1979 and 1983, and a few services and businesses built through the years, it offered the same services of other towns its size.
Fast forward to 2013 and 2014. Wright can boast of new facilities that few other Wyoming communities of similar size have.
In October, Wright residents welcomed a new recreation center, paid for by Campbell County, the town of Wright and the Campbell County School District.
A new visitors center, touting information on the Powder River Basin and the energy it provides to the nation, was built for about $1.05 million with half of the money ($500,000) coming from grants Wright applied for and received and half ($550,000) from the Wyoming Department of Transportation. The center opened in May near Panther Pond, where the town also moved its war memorial and rededicated that last spring.
The $9.6 million Wright Recreation Center includes 25,939 square feet with a lazy river, swimming pool, fitness machines, exercise area, a large weight-lifting workout area, exercise rooms and much more — a smaller version of the one that opened in Gillette in 2010. The facility includes 6,787 square feet of old gym, basketball court and locker rooms, although remodeled from the old center.
"It's absolutely gorgeous and we're so excited about it," Albin said. "It's a draw for us. I doubt there's another town of 2,000 people with a recreation center like this in America. We're blessed, being in Campbell County.
"Our community is 40 years old. Some towns are having to pay to dig up cast iron pipes and replace them. We don't have that yet. ... We're living in a dream world," he said.
There's much more coming, including completion of a new $5 million town hall and continued work on an outdoor rodeo arena that is part of a $7 million agriculture complex.
While not everyone approves of the projects — some because of the costs or the changes they will bring — there is excitement.
"No doubt about it. The town of Wright is shiny and it's nice to see," said John Flocchini, manager of the Durham Buffalo Ranch near the community.
It's wonderful, wonderful," said 83-year-old Eda (Edie) Reno, who owns and operates her ranch 60 miles south of Gillette. "It will be a lot of buildings. Wright is a very energetic town. It's moving."
In a place where everybody knows everybody, or seems to, there are smiles and plenty of joshing that Albin has to contend with as he goes about his day job of teaching and coaching at Wright Junior-Senior High School.
The agricultural complex has created much of that excitement.
"Amen," Reno said when questioned about the riding arena. "I keep telling the mayor to get that done before I die," she joked, adding she donated 122 loads of sand from her ranch for free to help the project along.
"It won't be just ranchers," she predicted, adding that people from Newcastle, Midwest and Douglas also may make use of the facility when it's completed.
Reno also noted that an oil company just completed a compression station on her ranch and allowed her to name it. It's now known as The Meadowlark Compression Station and occupies 10 acres.
A bigger compression station, occupying 110 acres, also will be located on her ranch. She's named that facility — not yet complete — the Paintbrush Compression Station.
"There's a lot of things going on. It's putting all kinds of people to work," she said.
She notices it when she tries to drive onto Highway 59, which is just two miles from her ranch.
"I have to wait (for the traffic). That's now ordinary every day," Reno said. "If you look out at 5 or 6 a.m., it's just a ribbon of lights on that road."
Flocchini sees that too.
"It's exciting, what's going on in the area. It's a busy, busy place," he said. "Holy cow, it's crazy. From Wright south to Douglas, there's just a line of vehicles on Highway 59. It's eye-opening."
That oil and gas industry has "softened the blow a little bit on the shrinking amount of workforce" caused by the downturn in coal, he added. "That horizontal drilling is doing so much for this area and for the whole country."
"We know there will be more (development or businesses)," Albin said. "We're cautiously excited about that. If I had my wish, we'd grow to the 2,500 to 3,000 (people) range, then we could have some of the services" that residents now have to drive north for in Gillette.
The town has been proactive in keeping its roads in shape and other projects, the mayor said. But its boom in services and construction goes well beyond that.
"These are quality-of-life things, what people would like to do and what people would like to have," he said.
"You just don't find the quality of facilities around anywhere in a town this size," said Flocchini, who manages 65,000 acres of his own in the area. "We're extremely blessed."