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Is Wyoming on the path to prosperity? Here's how Rock Springs feels

An arch in downtown Rock Springs
Cooper McKim
Wyoming Public Media
An arch in downtown Rock Springs signifying the region's history

It's overcast and cold as I walk around downtown Rock Springs. This one-time coal capitalhas since turned to oil, gas, and trona to power its economy. I think about what's happened here in recent years: terrible oil and gas prices decimating businesses and jobs, a coal-fired power plant set to close early. Here downtown, there are countless empty shops with "For Rent" signs posted on windows.

It's quiet and there are only a few stragglers walking down the street. Soon though, I'll find plenty of folks to talk to: in local businesses, getting out of their cars, or at the community college.

I want to know how things are right now in your opinion? After all, Wyoming is built on energy, and Rock Springs is one of the central hubs. With the structural decline of coal and fragile oil and gas markets, the constant question is, what's next? How long can this dependence on energy revenue last? Are citizens happy with the state's response? I approach anyone I can to ask.

Stickers available the Rock Springs Urban Renewal Agency
Cooper McKim
Wyoming Public Media
Stickers available the Rock Springs Urban Renewal Agency

Soon, I run into Jackie who's walking past the vintage shop.

"How are things in Rock Springs and Wyoming from your perspective?" I ask broadly.

"They're good! Yeah! I think," she says.

I do hear some more in-depth responses too, like from a construction worker named Boyd, who I met by the railroad while he's on a job.

"As far as Wyoming's future, I think it's bright as long as you stay on the right track. Stay red, stay conservative," he says.

I keep walking and chatting with folks on the street. I hear oil and gas markets are once again strong and the airport is undergoing renovation, so things are looking up. Locals applaud the freedom Wyoming affords.

Michele Irwin sits in a busy coffee shop. She's an environmental advocate and has a small herd of bison.

"I am happy with the direction things are going in Wyoming and the planet because I'm an optimist and I have been on the ground, talking to people in Wyoming who have good ideas and are resilient and they have gone through tough times before," she says.

Irwin believes the new presidential administration bodes well for Wyoming.

I also learn from Becky Costantino, an agent with 307 Real Estate Group LLC, that the real estate market here is doing very well.

"As far as Wyoming's future, I think it's bright as long as you stay on the right track. Stay red, stay conservative."

"Last year and this year have been [great ]. I've been selling real estate for 25 years and these are the two best years I've had in 25 years, which is just so weird with COVID and everything," she says.

A surprising number of folks say things are also looking up because a nuclear reactor may come to town. It's not clear where the developer will put it yet, but it will be at one of the state's coal-fired power plants due to close soon, and this county has one.

"Nuclear is going to be here pretty soon. Everything is on a dial," says Dan Ortegawho's sitting at a coffee shop.

"I hear there's a nuclear power plant coming in. So that's gonna be really helpful over here," says Garrett Bishop, a student at Western Wyoming Community College walking around campus.

"I'm pleased that we're going to get a nuclear reactor hopefully, which I think would bring a lot more resources to our economy," says Riley, also a student at WWCC.

To be clear, I don't only hear optimism. After all, Rock Springs has been hit hard by difficult times due to its reliance on energy markets. Just recently, the underground coal mine announced it will officially close its doors in November, impacting nearly a hundred workers. The coal plant too is still set to close. Not to mention, the pandemic wreaked havoc on the oil and gas markets. People tell me this has had an impact.

A billboard announcing Wyoming's personality
Cooper McKim
Wyoming Public Media
A billboard announcing Wyoming's personality

"I've known a dozen different people that have had to sell their homes and move out of state to find work because it's not here anymore," says Brenda Lester, a store manager at a gas station in town.

I hear a similar sentiment from an oil field worker who's smoking a cigarette in front of a restaurant.

"This is a mining town, [a mining] state. Things have changed in the last 10 years, a lot of good people [are] out of work, families. Things gotta change," he says.

It's not just families that are moving from Rock Springs though. It's young people too. Like one cashier at the Burger King who probably won't stick around. He's 18 and going to WWCC.

"I love this town, but I don't think I'll be able to [stick around] because of the process of how the future's leading us," says Carsen.

So, I try to find out what needs to change to stop people from leaving?

For some, it's leadership in the federal government. Several locals say they want Trump back; anything but Biden. Not to mention, I hear blame that fossil fuels are disappearing due to the feds.

"This is a good state, hard-working people, family-oriented people, and they're trying to shut down everything," says one citizen.

I also hear, keep green energy away.

"I'd like to see the wind turbines disappear. I'm not for the wind turbines. I think it's an eyesore to Wyoming. And I don't think we benefit much from it," says Boyd, a construction worker I chat with while he's on the job.

"I want the coal mines to be safe. I want the oilfield to come back. gas fields come back, I want people to go back to work," says an oil field worker who chose to remain anonymous.

"I love this town, but I don't think I'll be able to [stick around] because of the process of how the future's leading us."

I learn from others that the solution to Wyoming's woes could be diversifying the state's industries. There are also big warehouses for sale in Rock Springs. Maybe a business could make better use of those.

"We need to have an Amazon distribution center," says Costantino with 307 Real Estate Group.

Some want to bring manufacturing, become more attractive to telecommuters or take advantage of federal dollars.

"Now, it's our opportunity to invest that in tribal and rural enterprises, in women's small businesses," says Michele Irwin, the bison rancher and environmental advocate.

Irwin references the elephant in the room: changing the state's tax structure to benefit more from all these new industries.

"I think Wyoming does need to take a look at its tax structure. It's a system that has never been fair. It's a system that has always provided us with booms and busts, and we've ridden them out. But guess what, that's not sustainable, it's not sustainable for the planet," says Irwin. "So, asking everybody to pony up a little bit, sharing the burden, not putting it all on industry. That would be a good start."

After hours walking around Rock Springs, nearly everyone I asked to talk was willing to share, which, to me, reflects the kind of town Rock Springs is: open, informed, and willing to discuss.

Walking downtown now, there's no one around. So I walk into the city's urban renewal agency, which seems promising. The manager, Chad Banks, runs down the stairs when he hears the door. Turns out Banks is a state legislator who recognizes all the challenges facing both Rock Springs and Wyoming.

"I'm optimistic. I think Wyoming always recovers. We were uniquely positioned to do some new things."

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.

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