When you drive north into Torrington on highway 85 you see an iconic place. Since 1926 the Sugar beet factory, currently owned by Western Sugar Cooperative has been a mainstay of the local economy. Now is the busy season for the plant and you can hear it hum. Torrington is a small agriculture town of 7,000 people and according to Gilbert Servantez, who is the manager of the Torrington Workforce Services Center, the sugar factory has been a major employer.
“Western Sugar supports right around 75 to maybe 80 full-time employees at any given time and then seasonal it can vary as well from 150 to 180 seasonal workers.”
But those jobs are in jeopardy after Western Sugar announced that it was shutting down its Torrington operation in the next couple of years with plans to expand facilities in Nebraska and Colorado. Then this fall, due to low oil prices, Wyoming Ethanol said it was closing its doors and some 25 people lost their jobs. Servantez has been busy helping the Ethanol workers find jobs, but the Sugar workers could be a challenge.
“There are them possibilities that we can work with a handful of these folks that are willing to be retrained. You know we need to be pretty creative with that.”
Wally Wolski has been heavily involved in Goshen County ventures for many years and is currently the President of the local economic development board. He said it will especially impact local Ag producers who work part-time for the company during the harvest.
“The biggest concern I have is that a lot of families have depended upon that campaign work from about the first of October to the first of January every year for supplemental income and in a lot of cases that was what got families through the winter, so you can’t replace those jobs that are there seasonally.”
Torrington Mayor Mike Varney said he and others continue to work with Western Sugar to try and convince them to stay. He said if they leave it will certainly be a blow, but the community will survive.
“You could get depressed about it, but my attitude is that you gotta keep pushing on. We still have WMCI the Wyoming medium correctional institute, we have Eastern Wyoming College, we have Banner Health, we could be worse off. But do we want anybody to leave? Absolutely not.”
But one person who sees this as an opportunity is Goshen County Economic Development Director Ashley Harpstreith. Harpstreith is new to the job, but she’s been busy reacting to the announcement by trying to recruit several companies over the last few months. She said that a remodeled Ben Franklin store that is now the site of a popular coffee shop, store, and the local visitor center is just one example of Torrington’s vibrant downtown. Other shops have also opened up and Harpstreith said they are ready for new businesses.
“We have a couple of industrial parks that are shovel ready. The infrastructure is here, we are ready for industry to come, and now we might have some workforce to leverage as well.”
One problem for small communities is to convince companies they have enough local workers for them. She said companies are interested in those Western Sugar workers who soon may need jobs.
“When I’m trying to recruit other industries I’m able to leverage that workforce and show that we have an available workforce that is ready to go to work and eager to go to work when we are looking at big manufacturing companies coming in which is our target market.”
Meanwhile, Harpstreith said the Wyoming Ethanol facility that closed in earlier this fall is attracting a lot of interest from entrepreneurs.
“We have a ton of people interested right now, I’m daily on the phone with someone about Wyoming Ethanol.”
Many in the downtown business community are equally optimistic, mostly because they say business has never been better. Torrington features popular clothing stores that attract people from neighboring communities and even a new bakery started by a local doctor called… The Bread Doctor. Owner Ezdan Fluckiger thoughtfully prepares his goods and says everything will be ok.
“That’s gonna happen. But I don’t think the prison is going anywhere and we have to have schools, we have to have hospitals, and we have to have food. If we can pay the lights, and we can pay the help and I don’t have to dig into my personal finances to make the business run, I’ll consider it a success.”
Since Western Sugar is in full harvest mode the community has time. And local officials believe potential new businesses will see what they see, a small town with a lot going on.