GLENROCK -- Just past the high school, a freshly sodded lawn stands bright green against the otherwise uninterrupted prairie.
Young trees line one side of the lot's main building, which, from the outside, is little more than a rectangle. The front door bears the logo of the building’s first tenant -- a firearms manufacturer who five years ago proposed uprooting his Kentucky business and moving it to Glenrock.
Since its inception, the building has brought great promise but few guns to Glenrock. Three businesses came and went, plagued by poor management, unsuccessful turnarounds and owners who took money for pistols they never produced. The building bears marks of a haphazard construction and tumultuous past -- federal prison security locks on every entry, an unused metal shipping door meant to transfer rifles from workers to customers, and an elevator whose door opens the wrong way.
The Wyoming Business Council spent $1.5 million in taxpayer dollars on the building in Glenrock, built to house what the town hoped would be a way out of their uneasy marriage to the energy industry.
Today, another owner has arrived. It remains to be seen whether he, unlike those who came before him, will manufacture more than promises.
Everything seemed right for a gun manufacturer to make a home in Glenrock.
The town of 2,500 boasted more than a few firearms-related businesses when the Business Council funded the project in 2008. A rifle manufacturer fit the bill for the gun-friendly town.
"We are very sports-friendly, especially shooting sports," said Kathy Patceg, Glenrock's former community development director who worked from the start with the incoming business, A-Square of Wyoming, and its owner, Art Alphin. "This fit in perfectly with the direction we were already going."
When longtime Glenrock business owner and firearms restorer Diane Filing moved to Glenrock 20 years ago, she watched as the town reeled from the closing of a nearby coal mine that had powered the town's economy for nearly half a century. Homes sat vacant and property values dipped, she said. A bust in the 1980's left Glenrock with a subdivision of new houses, but no one to live there, and a brand new grade school with no students, town clerk Donna Geho said.
The town hoped they could bank on A-Square, unlike energy companies following the latest excavation, to stick around past the next boom.
"They're not going to leave with the minerals," Patceg said.
Firearms enthusiast Art Alphin wanted to move his company West. Though business was reportedly fine at his Kentucky-based rifle manufacturing plant, he said the Eastern air was no good for his asthmatic wife's lungs. Alphin refused to speak with the Star-Tribune about his company, A-Square of Wyoming, for this story.
Fueled by optimism that A-Square could put Glenrock on the national gun map, and by Alphin's pledge to hire 23 employees at a $1 million payroll within three years, the town eagerly signed a lease with Alphin once his application for construction funding passed.
The application took longer than usual, said former Wyoming Business Council Regional Director Steve Elledge, who worked with the town to fund the project.
Alphin was unreliable, judging from Business Council email correspondences obtained by the Star-Tribune through a public records request. Weeks passed when Business Council or town staff heard nothing from him, despite attempts to make contact. Elledge worked for months with Alphin to construct a business plan, after Glenrock withdrew Alphin's first application attempt in 2007.
The Business Council commissioned a background check on Alphin. The check found a federal criminal investigation in the 1990's that led to a raid on Alphin's residence and an A-Square plant in Indiana, but no wrongdoing by Alphin or the company.
The council pushed Alphin to hire a manager to help run the business.
"Somebody would have had to be there, or I wouldn't have recommended it," Elledge said.
Despite its doubts that Alphin would succeed running the business on his own, the Wyoming Business Council approved a $1.5 million grant to build the facility, which the town would own and lease to Alphin.
"I knew the facility would be snapped up if he went away," Elledge said. In early 2010, he did.
With each twist, the town refused to lower its hopes.
Quarterly council reports on the Glenrock project detail an eternally optimistic town and Business Council staff, not deterred by slow production or ever-changing plans.
"We are very excited and encouraged about the Sharps Rifle Company," one report said of a set of future owners, who took deposits for pistols they never produced. "Although the owners have changed, it is still going to be a positive project for the town."
Each time a new business came in or some part of the plan changed, the town renewed its hope in the project, Patceg said.
"It was just such a goal and such a great building, that we wanted it to be shooting sports," she said. "It just needed to be that."
New owners named the business Sharps Rifle Co. and started taking online orders for an antique-style revolver called the Merwin Hulbert. They told the Business Council they would manufacture the revolvers in Glenrock.
It's unclear whether a single revolver ever came off the line, but the company took plenty of orders and deposits, said Clyde Hutchins, a senior assistant attorney general for Wyoming.
Responding to a series of consumer complaints, Hutchins led a Wyoming attorney general's investigation into the company in 2012.
Hutchins said investigators found roughly 140 consumer complaints dating back to 2009. When paying customers asked Sharps Rifle Co. for a refund, they were told no refunds were available.
"Three years later, some of these people still hadn't received any revolver," Hutchins said. "We took this seriously."
Investigators never saw a finished pistol, Hutchins said, though the business's owners, Michael Blank and Al Jones, offered plenty of flashy brochures and computer-generated images. In 2012, the AG's office mandated the company refund the customers, who paid a collective $143,000 to Sharps Rifle Company.
But by then, the company had changed hands again.
Connecticut resident Kevin Tierney thought he could make a profit at the Glenrock facility. He's a self-titled turnaround man who says he has handled billions of dollars of risky financial situations during his 42 years in the business.
Michael Blank came to him in the summer of 2011 to ask advice, Tierney said, saying Blank and his investors had picked up a collapsing company and didn't know what to do.
"I evaluated the situation, and concluded that it was hopeless," he said of Sharps Rifle Co.'s finances. Where the more than $100,000 in consumer deposits for Merwin Hulbert pistols went is unclear, but Sharps Rifle Co. had no light at the end of its debt tunnel, Tierney said.
Tierney volunteered to deal with Blank’s creditors and banks. Blank turned over to Tierney the remaining equipment in the facility, which a town-commissioned appraiser estimated to be worth about $70,000.
The company had been mismanaged since its inception, Tierney said. It had no systems, no procedures. The business was ill-conceived. Before finishing his Wyoming Business Council application, Alphin had ditched the ammunition-making part of his plan, which gun manufacturers rely on to subsidize the more expensive process of making rifles. Until Tierney, none of the business's subsequent owners picked the ammunition manufacturing up again.
With no income, no way to pay rent, and an enormous liability in the $1.5 million facility and equipment, Tierney said the best thing the company could do was surrender to its creditors.
Tierney did just that.
In early 2012, he arranged a deal on rent payments with the town of Glenrock that would allow him to raise new capital to start rifle production.
It could have been a win for himself and for the town of Glenrock, he said.
But when Tierney was $1 million away from raising what he thought was the necessary start-up purse, two other businessmen snapped the business away.
The only constant throughout the building's life was a Wyoming native named Jay Lesser, said Wyoming Business Council east central regional director Kim Rightmer.
He worked for each of the previous owners while the plant struggled to get off the ground.
“That’s why I felt so strongly about getting this thing to work," Lesser said recently while sitting at his desk in the Glenrock facility's office. He is now the president of Broadsword Group, a limited liability company that owns every enterprise that has come before it in the Glenrock building.
Lesser finalized purchase of the company in February, partnering with a financier who is reportedly not looking for outside funding.
Despite lofty projections of dozens of helping hands at the factory and millions of dollars in sales, not one of the previous companies employed more than four people, Lesser said. He estimated fewer than 40 guns have come off the line there. Today he oversees a six-man operation that recently turned out its first loads of ammunition, packaged and ready for sale.
“I’ve always looked at this as the Field of Dreams,” Lesser said. “Build it, and they will come.”
He started by mailing refunds to people who deposited money on Merwin Hulbert pistols that never came. He built and shipped rifles that A-Square and Alphin never produced, he said.
And unlike his predecessors, Lesser said, he will not take a dime until a finished product is packaged and ready to go. The company plans to manufacture bullets and rifles on site and have 20 employees by the first of next year.
Inside and out, the gray and burgundy building is slowly changing.
Lesser removed unnecessary interior walls and beautified the front of the facility. He is considering an 11,000-square-foot addition; it’s in the engineering phase now. Broadsword Group ordered $5 million in equipment, Lesser said, which will likely be delivered over the next six months.
He has a plan for how to one day fix the elevator with the door that opens in the wrong direction.
But for now, he said, the stairs work just fine.
Star-Tribune publisher Nathan Bekke is co-chair of the Wyoming Business Council.