A group of investors trying to bring a new coal venture to the infamous Two Elk site in northern Wyoming has called off its race to get $100 million in tax-exempt bonds from Campbell County. The decision comes ahead of a request for answers about unpaid taxes in Montana.
New Power’s idea is to build a coal improvement plant on the Two Elk property that would dry out Powder River Basin coal, turning it into a more valuable product. Wyoming companies could then export the coal overseas or sell it at a higher price here in the U.S., proponents say.
The bonds, allocated to Wyoming by the federal government, would help New Power draw investment dollars for the project. Commissioners remain amenable to the proposal despite this set back. It would be one of a handful of businesses seeking alternatives to help Campbell County’s chief industry, coal, face declining demand.
But, recent news that one of New Power’s investors, a firm with an idle gold mine in Montana, owed taxes in Montana and its manager Patrick Imeson had faced SEC violations decades before, left county commissioners with some unanswered questions.
Imeson’s firm owes Wyoming’s northern neighbor about $19 million in reclamation bonding – money set aside for clean-up at industrial sites—as well as about $5 million in unpaid taxes to a local county.
The businessman said in earlier interviews that Black Diamond knowingly inherited the unpaid bills when it bought the mine out from its previous owner years ago. It was a distressed business that Black Diamond had hoped to flip sooner. The company still intends to bring the mine back online and make good on its debts, he said.
The SEC violations were a mistake from years ago, he said.
New Power’s decision to walk back on the request from county allocated bonds is disappointing for everyone, said Commissioner Mark Christiansen.
But it does give the firms involved, and the county, breathing room, he said.
“We didn’t have enough time … to do that traditional level of diligence, and none of us have an existing relationship with [Imeson],” he said.
Christiansen said he understands that there are “two sides to every story.” The commission is still looking to work with the investors if they seek the bonds next year, but wants to be assured of its concerns over the Black Diamond history, and Imeson’s background, before it gives county approval.
The bonds do not put the county or Wyoming at a financial risk.
For Imeson, the short timeline proved to be too much too fast.
“We thought that was a real benefit to the county or the state if we could get this done quick enough,” he said. “Otherwise that allocation would go unused.”
Ultimately, it wasn’t worth it to make the county feel rushed, he said. Tax proposals being considered this week in Washington, meanwhile, may discontinue the bonding program, casting uncertainty over the availability of the bonds long term, he added.
It wouldn’t make or break the project, which is still progressing, he said.
As for any reticence from the county, Imeson said news coverage of Black Diamond’s history made an already rushed process more “arduous.”
But the investors understand that hesitation, he said.
“I think everyone is a lot more comfortable letting things take their course and play out accordingly.”
The Two Elk property is centrally located near Wyoming coal mines, but its reputation is tied to another coal venture that failed in Wyoming. Two Elk’s developer, Mark Ruffatto, admitted to defrauding the federal government out of millions of dollars in grant money, for a carbon capture research that never happened. Two Elk also received Campbell County tax-exempt bonds. Ruffatto is not associated with Wyoming New Power. He faces sentencing early next year.
For Imeson, the coal drying plant could take a bad legacy in coal country and turn it around.
I met Casper’s own wildlife celebrity on my second day in town.
There, in the middle of Wolcott Street, stood a large male turkey. The threat of my 3,000-pound car, idling feet from his fragile bird body, didn’t even appear to ruffle his feathers.
I peered at him from behind my windshield. He looked back at me, his beady bird eyes surrounded by his bright red, bald head.
I honked. He blinked. I honked again, and then slowly inched my car toward him. He continued to stare until my bumper was inches away. Satisfied he had held his ground, the turkey finally ambled off.
The turkey, known to some as Thomas Gobbles, was a strange and ugly welcoming party to the city that I now call home. At the time, I didn’t know he was a quasi-celebrity.
Known for standing in the middle of busy intersections and chasing innocent pedestrians, Thomas has been profiled in the Star-Tribune, featured on Inside Edition and appeared on a Houston television channel. He warranted an individualized warning from the Casper Police Department last summer.
“Thomas has no common sense nor does he follow the clearly articulated statutes governing pedestrian crossing of a roadway (jay walking),” Sgt. Scott Jones wrote on the department’s Facebook page. “Thomas also likes to play “chicken”, so to speak, and will chase cars down the street. Pedestrians, especially females, should take notice and avoid Thomas. For reasons unknown he is a woman chaser and has chased several ladies on the Casper College Campus.”
A few months after my first Thomas encounter, somebody introduced me to his Facebook page, which lists him as a “public figure” and has collected more Facebook likes than the governor’s. Dedicated fans posted photos of the large turkey strutting in traffic, snacking in their yards, sleeping on porches and peering through their blinds. One video showed Thomas enjoying one of his favorite hobbies: chasing a UPS delivery driver.
This summer, however, Thomas’ Facebook page went quiet. For months, there were no photos. No anecdotes. Thomas’ fans began wondering: Where did our friend go?
“Thomas, where are you?” one poster wrote. “Miss you.”
And so, with Thanksgiving nearing, I put on my detective hat and went to find out.
First, I needed to survey Gobble’s regular stomping grounds myself. One uncharacteristically warm fall day, I drove up to Thomas’ neighborhood just north of Casper College and wandered about.
There were no signs of an aggressive tom turkey.
I popped my head in the Werner Wildlife Museum, on the north edge of campus. If anybody would know, it would be the wildlife people.
Two women sat behind the main desk and stared back at me as I explained my mission.
“Shoot, I haven’t seen him since summer,” said Eileen Lemm, an assistant at the museum.
Museum staff usually encountered Thomas at least once a month, she said. And while they’ve seen Thomas’ girlfriend, distinguishable because of her limp, Mr. Gobbles has been missing for at least a few months.
I stepped back into the wind and started knocking on the doors of neighboring homes. After a few attempts, a woman cracked open the heavy red door to her home and peered at me inquisitively through the 2-inch gap.
Kathy Parker explained she would’ve invited me into the home where she’s lived for 19 years, but just had eye surgery and wasn’t supposed to expose her eyes to the light.
Had she seen Thomas recently?
“I used to see him almost every day,” she explained. “But I’m worried about him.”
I knocked on a few other doors. One man, confused by the young woman at his doorstep asking about a turkey with a name, explained he’s from out of town.
“I’m just visiting my brother, man,” he said.
I realized I couldn’t explain Thomas Gobbles succinctly to this man. How does one encapsulate the glory and community importance of a cantankerous turkey in a few seconds without sounding loony?
I thanked the man and walked away.
At a blue house on Durbin, Kiki Rochelle told me she hadn’t seen Thomas in about six months. He would sometimes disappear for a few weeks, she said, but has never been gone this long before.
Thomas liked to sit on the welcome mat outside the front door, Rochelle said.
“He would leave a whole bunch of unpleasant presents,” she said, toeing the now-clean mat. The day before last Thanksgiving, Thomas had decided to take up his post there. When Rochelle attempted to take a selfie with him, he charged and Rochelle ran screaming.
Despite the attempted assault, Rochelle said she treasures Thomas as a charming neighborhood quirk.
“I hope you find him,” she said as I walked away.
I felt similarly.
With initial surveillance unsuccessful, I started making phone calls.
Previously, Casper College security would get regular calls from panicked students being pursued by the turkey. But they hadn’t had any reports of T-Gobbs recently and hadn’t seen him in at least six months, a security officer told me. Casper Police told a similar tale.
I called Metro Animal Services, which also regularly processed reports when Thomas got feisty, and was put on hold. As the hold music played — a loop of a very loud advertisement for an upcoming Judas Priest show at the Casper Events Center — I pondered my career ambitions.
I set out as a reporter to tell the hard-hitting stories. That’s what I told my parents when they questioned my decision to pursue journalism. How did I come to be here, in a windowless Wyoming office, calling various public officials about a turkey?
I shook off the doubt. This story needed to be told.
The horrific hold music ended and a Metro employee told me they hadn’t had any Thomas Gobbles reports in a while, though she couldn’t tell me exactly how long it had been. The animal control office used to get regular calls about Thomas, but the reports had tapered off in recent years.
“People realized he wasn’t going anywhere so they stopped calling,” she said.
Over Facebook, I reached out to some of the people who regularly posted photos of Thomas to see if they had seen him. Stefanie Jackson said Thomas used to come by her house on 14th Street every day for breakfast and dinner. But he hasn’t come by for his daily snack since March, she said.
“I have asked many people on my walk if anyone has seen him,” she wrote. “No one has. I miss him so much.”
In any good detective movie, there reaches a moment when the protagonist is stumped. By this point, I was there.
Nobody knew where Thomas had gone, and nobody could confirm the worst.
But I had one last source to contact. I left a voicemail.
About a week later, I got the call.
Pick up Thursday’s Star-Tribune for the next installment in the search for Thomas Gobbles.
It could cost more than $7 million to bring a ranch Casper College purchased up to code and build a nearby rodeo arena, a college official said.
The college’s board is still weighing what to do with the 167.5-acre ranch, which it purchased for $3.1 million in March 2014. The initial — and current — reason for buying the ranch was to construct a rodeo arena, said Shawn Powell, the college’s vice president for academic affairs. Secondary to that was expanding the school’s agricultural offerings.
“I believe now that Casper College is the only college without an inherent rodeo arena,” Powell said. “ ... That was the number one priority.
Spurred by rumors that the college was weighing different solutions to the ranch, several students and community members spoke in defense of the property at a March board meeting. Many talked about its utility as an educational facility.
“You have an opportunity with this ranch and farm that is unbelievable,” said Mary Owens, who owns a cattle and sheep ranch.
“I feel like this community college — because that’s what it is — should do more and do its job to prepare students for the world of work and for more post-secondary education,” said Brock Burch, a CC graduate and Natrona County High School teacher. “... There is an opportunity for a real-world education with application.”
But the zoning and coding of the property was not “investigated fully” when it was purchased, Powell said last week, and the college discovered that the ranch was not zoned for educational purposes in 2015. Officials commissioned a study to look at the cost of bringing the buildings up those standards. In January 2016, the study was completed, and the initial estimate was $4.2 million.
Powell said educational purposes of the ranch could include its greenhouse and livestock.
That number is on top of the $5 million that it would take to build the rodeo arena, a figure that included $1.2 million for a water-suppression system for the complex.
“The overall cost of this project suddenly went from a low estimate when it was initially purchased of less than $5 million to, with the purchase price, $12 million,” Powell said.
A second study was completed in September that looked at ways to cut the price to meet educational code, and that brought that cost down from $4.2 million to $2.8 million, Powell said.
Now, the college staff waits for direction from its board of trustees. There are essentially three plans the board could choose to pursue: It could pay the full price — with the latest estimate, at least $10 million and likely more — and provide both an arena and educational opportunities; it could sell the ranch; or it could build only the rodeo arena and essentially set aside educational opportunities.
Powell said future funding would have to come from a fundraising campaign. The college is still paying off loans to the foundation for the initial purchase of the ranch. There would also be costs associated with simply operating the facility, figures that neither Powell nor spokesman Chris Lorenzen said they could pin down.
Powell said he didn’t know when the board might provide some instruction on what might happen with the arena, though he said hopefully it would be in the coming months.
“It would be nice for the college to have a rodeo arena. It would be nice for the college to have the opportunity to expand agricultural programs,” he said. “Given the economic climate, I’m not sure what the reality is of those situations right now.”