Billy Brenton has a foot in two worlds, one in oil, gas and mining, the other in wind.
Like a lot of companies that serve energy industries, a dramatic drop in the fossil fuel economies in recent years meant an evaporation of business in Wyoming. So Brenton’s trucks and cranes and hauling equipment would normally be dotting Wyoming were shifted to offices in neighboring states where there was still work to be found. Wind similarly had a downturn from Brenton’s point of view, ever since the state passed a wind tax. And again, the firm moved its resources elsewhere.
But it’s coming back, a bit, he said.
Wyoming’s oil and gas jobs hit about 11,600 in June, coinciding with increased drilling activity in the state. And they’ve stayed right there for the last six months, according to state economists.
Many firms that serve the industry are headquartered in Casper, home of machinists and roustabout crews, rig repair shops and maintenance bays. Though development is better than is was, improvements appear to have leveled off. Shops that closed have remained closed. The handful that survived the worst of the downturn are working again. The economy of the city, much like the state as a whole, has contracted, said Jim Robinson, economist with the state’s economic analysis division.
A recent snapshot of Casper’s economic health showed improvements from the year before, but they also show what’s been lost, said
The jobless rate is down, which improves the overall picture, but it also means folks have gone elsewhere, he said.
“The Casper economy is recalibrating itself,” he said. “Part of that adjustment process is that sometimes people leave the area because they can’t find a job.”
And the result is a smaller labor force and a tighter mining sector.
Not all folks have been left out of business. Jerry Blom’s JB Machine and Manufacturing shop was buzzing with the sound of steel being cut on the day before Thanksgiving.
The father and son shop on Yellowstone Highway is one of the few that survived the downturn when business fell flat. They cut employees and made it work from contract to contract.
Things are better, they say.
The company has had a number of jobs with a local company in recent months that have given the shop a boost. JB generally works with small to medium sized independent companies repairing equipment that is run down out in the oil fields.
Those small firms have kept the shop open during the downturn, Blom said.
The price of oil hit $58 bucks a barrel, Blom, noted. He expects it to continue.
“Real slow, like it’s been doing,” he said. “That’s good for us. They start bringing out some rigs that they haven’t used that they need repaired.”
For Brenton, whose businesses serve two different industries, the oil and gas side has seen an uptick. Drilling that’s going on in the Powder River Basin, near Wright, has trickled down to the company that hauls heavy equipment, helps transport rigs from one site to the next.
The company is about five years old. It came into its own before the sharp downturn and made it through by working in other states.
Brenton, like Blom, said he expects a slow return of the oil business, no dramatic upswings or sudden booms.
But there is some frustration for how politics are influencing the wind business, Transportation Partners and Logistics, he said.
The wind tax pushed business out of the state, and it went straight to Colorado and Idaho, he said.
“We have projects that we are servicing all around Wyoming, except Wyoming,” he said.
The business could have a dramatic upswing if politicians would get rid of the tax, or make a promise to keep it at a certain level long term, he said.
Being able to operate outside of Wyoming means the lull in wind development hasn’t hurt his bottom line. But Wyoming’s missing out, he said.
“Would I love to build a railyard in Casper? Yes, I would,” he said. “I would build it tomorrow.”
Downtown shops opened to sleepy streets on Black Friday, the morning after Casper shoppers started lining up at chain retail stores miles from the city center.
No crowds packed downtown the day after Thanksgiving. But a few customers stood waiting outside Sonic Rainbow CD’s when sales associate Joe Eason arrived to open the shop.
Black Friday is one of the busiest days of the year for Sonic Rainbow because of exclusive releases hitting the shelves, Eason said. The economic slump impacted the shop, though not drastically.
“Even in the bad times, you still need something that makes you feel good,” he said.
The traditional start of the holiday shopping season brought shoppers and diners strolling through the neighborhood Friday. Many business owners and employees expected a better crowd for Small Business Saturday.
Several shop owners and employees have noticed more foot traffic in the area amid the spate of new businesses, recent local development like the David Street Station and talk of uptick in the state’s energy industries.
But the effects of the economic downturn continue to linger.
1890, Inc. has outgrown its current space in the Old Yellowstone District for its custom and craft apparel operation, sales manager Jessica Quick said, and recently created a new position. However, people still seem a little cautious to spend money.
Jacquie’s Bistro owner Jacquie Anderson knew the day after Thanksgiving would be busy with a combination of shoppers and families, along with people heading to movies during the days off work and school, she said. The small restaurant even had to turn away some groups, she said.
Business has picked up nearly 20 percent overall from a year ago, Anderson said. The past couple of years had been tough with the slumping economy that brought sales down about 25 to 30 percent, she said. The Wyoming Eclipse Festival brought a boost that helped. The influx of new business also has made a positive impact on the small restaurant by drawing more people to the area.
“We all need one another to survive,” Anderson said.
Wind City Books owner Vicki Burger also has enjoyed a rise in business during the past year.
“It’s gradually picking up,” she said.
Smaller businesses with smaller margins can’t offer what large chains do for Black Friday, Burger said.
“But we aim to offer a level of service that exceeds big box stores,” Burger said.
At Sonic Rainbow, business slowed this earlier month after a particularly busy October. But many regulars tend to save up for Black Friday and the holidays, Eason said.
People also turn to tattoos during the down times, said tattoo artist Tiffany Lynes at SparxWorx. This time of year is normally a slower, but it picks up after Christmas with people spending gift cards and receiving tax refunds, Lynes said. The economic downturn slowed some of the ink flow at the shop, but customers still kept business steady, she said.
“People like to use tattoos as a way to release stress,” she said. “It’s a good emotional thing for them.”
Cindy Ryder has owned the Birdee Biyou in Center Street for 15 years, though many first-time visitors tell her they never knew the shop for pet birds and supplies existed. She’s hearing that more often as the surge of downtown business brings more people in the door to see what’s there, she said.
The economic slump slowed birds sales, especially the more expensive species, store manager Samantha Huseas said. But sales for supplies have remained steady.
Cactus Arts owner Julie Lawrence is thrilled with the developments in downtown, including David Street Station, which draws a lot of foot traffic to her shop in the Old Yellowstone district, she said.
She’s opened the business 16 years ago as a studio, and for the past six years has run the shop selling clothing and home décor and other items. Her hot item now is ugly Christmas sweaters she designs with garlands, bulbs and even reindeer toys.
While the shop doesn’t keep regular hours, she’s noticed a little more business, especially during events like the Art Walk.
“We’re seeing more people walking around this area now,” she said. “It’s great to see it starting to boom a little bit better.”
Sara Moore wended her way downtown Friday shopping for presents in several stores. She makes a point to shop at local businesses to keep them around, she said.
“You’re getting something unique and different,” Moore said. “And I like supporting the local owners and contributing to our community.”