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"As Yellowstone Goes, So Goes Cody:" How one town of 10,000 relies on tourism

Corner shot of the Irma Hotel, showing a wraparound porch with picnic tables. A sign reads "The Irma" while the rest of the facade is decked out in American flags and whiskey advertisements.
Robert Alescio
The Irma Hotel in the heart of Cody is a popular tourist destination. Cody welcomes some 300,000 to 400,000 summer visitors every year.

The city of Cody brands itself as the Gateway to Yellowstone. Cody is 50 miles from the East Gate and its economy is built around the steady stream of summer tourists traveling to and from the park. That gives Cody a unique culture - and unique challenges.

On the Fourth of July in Cody, Wyoming, the town and all of its guests come out for the Independence Day parade.

Cody is officially a city of about 10,000 people. But during the parade, if you counted everyone inside city limits, there might be three or four times that number of people.

The parade itself is a draw. So is the Cody Nite Rodeo that takes place every night during the summer.

But most people are here because of Yellowstone National Park.

"Cody, Powell, Meeteetse - we think we're kind of a destination all to our own anyway, but obviously the number one draw, the number one hook, will always and forever be Yellowstone National Park," said Ryan Hauck, executive director of Cody Yellowstone, the city's tourism department.

Hauck said Cody has about 2,800 hotel rooms and they're 100 percent full the week of the Fourth of July. The sheer volume of summer tourism means Cody proper is a bigger city than one would expect for a population of 10,000.

"We have piles of restaurants, some of the best shopping in the entire state, including Cheyenne and Casper and Sheridan even, and it's because we have that tourism infrastructure here," Hauck said. "A town of 10,000 people shouldn't have everything that we have, but we do because we have them[tourists]."

Cody doesn't even have the population to staff all of its restaurants, shops and tourist traps. Traveling workers fill in the gaps, and the J1 visa program brings in temporary young workers from all over the world. It's also an attractive labor market for high schoolers or college students seeking well-paying summer jobs.

But Cody also has to deal with the infrastructure demands of that summer surge. Mayor Matt Hall said you have to be prepared for your peak capacity all year round.

"Generally speaking, as far as our infrastructure projects go, we pretty much design, for example, our wastewater facility, to be able to take those capacities," Hall said. "And in fact, it has that and then some for growth."

Growth, because some fraction of tourists will decide to come back and retire in Cody - drawn by the area's scenic surroundings, wide range of dining options, and of course, proximity to Yellowstone.

Maintaining capacity for some 300,000 to 400,000 summer visitors with such a tiny year-round population is not cheap.

In Cody, tourism is the number one source of tax revenue. Hall said that helps offset those high infrastructure costs.

"Roughly between 30 and 40 percent of our sales tax base is paid for by tourism," he said. "So it's a big chunk of our economy."

But Cody is not immune from the so-called "resource curse." That's when a community, state or country has an overreliance on one significant source of tax revenue, to the exclusion of others.

So, for example, Park County is one of the only counties in Wyoming that doesn't have the "5th Penny" sales tax.

In most Wyoming communities, the fifth penny pays for a significant chunk of city services. Hall said his county "leaves a lot on the table" by not collecting that extra cent.

"The fact that we have been getting along without the fifth penny is a testament to how much tourism we do get," the mayor said. "We're able to kind of still provide what we can with a municipal base of 10,000."

But Hall added the long-term health of Cody's streets and other infrastructure is at risk.

"We defer a lot of maintenance and there are a lot of things that we go without," he said. "And eventually that's going to hit this community one way or another. You can't do that indefinitely."

But relying on tourism is in the city's blood. Cody has always been a tourist town - ever since its founding in 1896 by Buffalo Bill Cody.

Lynn Houze is a local historian and the president and founder of the Cody Heritage Museum. She said, before Cody national park visitors traveled by wagon, usually through Montana, occasionally staying in tent hotels.

"The road wasn't built into Yellowstone until around 1904," she said. "There was nothing going out that way. And in fact, at one point, George Beck, who was also a town founder, commented that between Cody and getting into Yellowstone, you had to cross the Shoshone River something like 28 times."

Even after the road was built, the journey to Yellowstone took days.

"It took a little bit to get there," Houze said. "You really had to want to get there."

As Cody grew, so did its offerings. It's now a mini Mecca for gun enthusiasts, between its gun shows and the Cody Firearms Museum. It's a draw for outdoor adventurers. And of course, all the red-white-and-blue celebrations in early July.

But Houze said "the Gateway to Yellowstone" is still intimately tied to the nation's first national park.

"As Yellowstone goes, so goes Cody," Houze said.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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