Local businesses prep for an influx of nuclear workers in Kemmerer
Real estate agent Jessica Lozier sat at the new coffee shop in Kemmerer, Wyoming. It is called Fossil Fuel Coffee Company. It is an early morning in mid-April and it is pretty empty.
“It is a boom and bust town,” Lozier said.
About 2,000 people live in Kemmerer, which is in the corner of southwest Wyoming, where the mountains meet the desert. It is known for a few things – the original JCPenney store, ancient fossils and, consequently, the fossil fuel industry.
In fact, on the walls behind Lozier are fish fossils on display that were found in the area.
“There's been times that it has been really busy,” she said. “And there's been times that it's been not busy and that downtown has kind of been dying.”
And that has been the case for the past five years or so. Mainly because both its coal mine and coal plant almost shut down.
But, in late 2021, there was a beacon of hope. The company TerraPower, founded by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, announced their plans to build a nuclear plant nearby. While there is some pushback with the project – namely, locals are worried about keeping up with the rapid growth – the hope is to create ‘greener’ energy and jobs for former coal workers.
“It brought, I think, a revived sense of security for the community that it needed,” Lozier said over a steaming hot coffee.
If everything goes to plan, about 1,600 temporary workers will come over the next seven years to build the facility. So, local businesses are trying to prepare for the influx. Specifically, places that can provide short term housing.
1,056 more spaces needed
Gordon Gunter walked through patchy snow at Riverside RV Park just north of town.
“I just turned the water on today. Normally I'm doing lawns right now,” Gunter said as he stared up at a snow pile taller than him.
Gunter and his family built the park in the 60s, and adding a few more spaces for guests has long been a goal.
“So here’s the river right here,” he pointed to the babbling Hams Fork River. “So these spaces start here and run down the river. Well, I could actually do spaces all the way around the river.”
Temporary energy workers are his main clientele, and with the recent bust, he was not sure if expanding made sense. But, once the nuclear project was announced he started hearing from contractors.
“So I got one of those calls last spring. And I said, 'How many sites do you think you'll need?' And she said, 'Oh, about 1,100.' Well, we've got 44 max at this point, and I went, '1,100?'" Gunter said with a chuckle.
They need 1,056 more spaces than Gunter has to offer. But, he is adding 15 more spaces over the next few years. He said the renewed interest in Kemmerer has given him the confidence to do so.
A similar situation is happening at the Antler Motel across town. It is managed by Seth Snyder – an ambitious entrepreneur in his mid-20s. He has already opened up a carwash, laundromat and pet wash in town. Now he is focusing on fixing up additional rooms at the motel.
“I’ll show you one of the rooms where he’s getting some of the flooring down, and I’ll show this other one which has a brand new glass shower,” Snyder said as he grabbed an old-timey brass key.
Right now all 46 rooms are booked - mainly with temporary energy workers. Snyder is fixing up nine more to help meet the demand.
“So many people come in and are like, “Do you have a mini fridge in your room?”’ he said.
And they do. In fact, they have a full-size freezer. Something people might need if it is their home away from home.
Snyder said he likely would have opened his businesses and renovated the motel no matter whether TerraPower came in or not.
“I'm young enough to fail, I can fail over and over again,” Snyder said. “I was taking a gamble.”
But, he said growth in the economy and attention on Kemmerer since the TerraPower announcement has definitely helped his businesses turn a profit. Now, he said without a doubt the additional nine rooms will be needed for the foreseeable future.
Snyder does treasure the idea of small town Wyoming, so he echoed a sentiment across town.
“I don't want to get a Walmart,” he said. “I don't want to become a big city. But we have to do something or we won't even have a city anymore.”
The nine rooms will be finished this year, but it is still a far cry from what is needed for the 1,600 temporary workers.
City and company planning
The city recognizes this. Brian Muir was brought on to help with Kemmerer’s transition. While some old apartments in town might be renovated, Muir said not everyone will find housing in Kemmerer.
“We have to be a little bit realistic about what we can and can't do in our planning,” Muir said. “It's probably going to still be a place where people will still commute here.”
He said right now, about 40 percent of industry workers commute to Kemmerer – sometimes driving as far as an hour and a half one-way.
“You've got to make sure that you don't build too much too fast just for the temporary workers,” Muir said, specifically referencing man camps that can have a not-so-great reputation.
Spreading the influx of workers to other nearby towns does not bother some in Kemmerer. They are excited about the security of the new industry, but like Snyder said, they do not want it to become a big city either.
TerraPower’s Jeff Navin said for the next year only about 100 workers will be in the area. The largest influx is still a few years off.
When that happens, Navin lightheartedly said, “Might be a little more difficult to get a hotel room in Kemmerer for the next few years than it was for the last few years.”
Navin said there is still a lot in flux with the planning. They were supposed to break ground on one of the facilities this spring, but are still waiting on the ‘ok’ from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
“We are pushing DOE pretty hard to make sure we can break ground (this year) before the ground freezes out there,” he said.
Notably, both the company and the feds are sinking equal amounts of money into the project – likely amounting to about $1.9 billion each.
One other setback that could be more of an issue down the road is the fuel source for the plant. Currently, the company does not have one. It was supposed to come from Russia, but after the start of the war in Ukraine, TerraPower said they would source it domestically. Where and how this will happen has yet to be figured out. This has set the project back by two years. Navin said the delay actually decreased the number of workers needed to complete the project, as the deadline is not quite so tight.
But, for now, Kemmerer still feels quiet. Standing downtown one sees the new coffee shop, but also a lot of empty storefronts. One person is out and about, the birds are chirping and a car drives by every few minutes or so…
It is still small town Wyoming, even though it has been chosen for this first of its kind nuclear project.