GILLETTE, Wyo. — County 17 sat down Nov. 22 with Aaron Lyles, the new executive director of Campbell County Public Land Board, to see how he’s settling in and what his plans are for the position and CAM-PLEX.
Campbell County Public Land Board hired Lyles officially Nov. 10 when it unanimously approved an employment contract that will end Nov. 6, 2024. Director of Finance ReNae Keuck was interim executive director following Jeff Esposito’s departure.
Lyles began work Nov. 7, and Nov. 22 was Lyles’ second day of his third week on the job. He’s currently a hybrid employee, so it was about his fourth day onsite at CAM-PLEX.
Lyles said that in accepting the position, he accepted the fact that he’s accepting all of the decisions of his predecessors.
“My hope is that in taking ownership of those decisions, I can at least be a better communicator, that I can offer a little bit of insight and a lot of willingness to listen,” he said.
He said it may take time for CAM-PLEX staff to have thorough answers to questions from the public regarding bigger processes, like the Camporee or the rodeo, since there are so many decisions that are made over time, and information and realities change. And not having really fast, full and complete answers sort of leaves an environment where people can get frustrated, he said. But he said he’s going to do what he can to improve communication.
County 17: What do you think you can do about the overall communication strategy?
Lyles: Well, I think the absence of an executive director at CAM-PLEX has been a huge part of the lack of communication. So, me just physically existing, it’s going to help a lot.
The Land Board, in particular, really had to step up and cover administrative tasks that a board like that would not normally have needed to take up. But in the absence of an executive director, they needed to. That introduces only being able to do business once a month, those types of things. And so, having someone on the ground, especially someone that’s willing to sort of hold the torch of leadership a little bit and, and coordinate some of these communications, it’s going to go a long way. Now, that doesn’t change the decisions made before and if you’re someone in the community that really doesn’t believe in the Camporee, or you really do. That’s part of that horse I’ve chosen to saddle. And my job is going to be making sure that correct and timely information is being communicated. And then also helping the other staff members throughout these other organizations be able to have a single point of coordination. That’s going to be essential moving forward. And so I have accepted the challenge of being a coordinator of project management-type responsibilities. And simply not having someone doing that before really is a lot of what the community is seeing as lack of organization.
County 17: So for the time being, does the community have a way to communicate with you that will be most appropriate or most effective?
Lyles: Well, I’ve been big about opening all the doors at CAM-PLEX, and that includes my office. So we’re not going to hide behind administrative staff here. I’ve asked that if news agencies, reporters want access to me or CAM-PLEX that they have complete access. It’s there’s not going to be those nervous sensitivities that, oftentimes, when there’s conflict, in a subject matter, we get nervous about sitting across from a reporter. You don’t want to say the wrong thing. You don’t want to inspire new drama, and have the spotlight shine on you. I tend to think, this is a public organization; it has to have its doors and information as wide open as we can make it. And the community needs to be able to make decisions, whether it’s funding decisions through the governing bodies or whatnot. They need to have access to timely information.
Now, that being said, we elect representatives to represent us. And so, me working through my Land Board, who is my employer, is the first point that I have to work through, and then serving as a communication link to the City and to the County is, is a function of my responsibilities to communicate. I ultimately report to a single employer, even though I’m funded through, I think I have, like a count of 22 or so bosses are in my pipeline. So it’s gonna be a challenge. You know, there’s, I didn’t go into this with rose-colored glasses. I sort of love the idea of having an actual set of challenges that we’re going to find positive solutions for.
And it’s, we’re not here to please everyone. I think that if we attempt to please everyone, we will disappoint everyone.
And so those who really think that Camporee is a terrible thing, and should never come, that contract’s in place, luckily, before I got here. I don’t have feelings regarding whether Camporee’s a good thing or a bad thing. My responsibility is to make the absolute best for both the community as well as the Camporee. They’re customers of ours. And I think it’s important that we honor them as customers.
County 17: What does good customer service look like to you? You definitely addressed the communication piece, though, I kind of need a short answer on that, still, at this point — are you saying contact the landlord first?
Lyles: Well, I think if there’s, if there are basic questions, in a very short term, my telephone line. Call the front desk at CAM-PLEX. I’m happy to answer questions.
You’re also sitting across the table from a guy who has been on the job for three weeks, so the depth and the ability to really provide ready responses will grow over time. But I certainly have been given amazing support at the county and at the city to be able to inquire and find out answers to questions. And so that’ll be me fielding questions and then helping find answers.
I know that there’s been a lot of conversation about public forums and whether or not they’re happening. And all of that has sort of played out before I got here. But as a new person to town looking at that situation, it’s an interesting and difficult situation, I think, for Camporee to be in because they’re a customer who’s agreed to basically rent a facility. And then they’re being solicited questions that are really pointed and challenging about whether or not they should even be here. And so if you could imagine putting ourselves in their shoes, that would be a difficult spot to be in. And while I know that they’re very willing to work with communication in the community, I think, just like anyone would be, they would naturally be nervous, and I’m talking for myself, not for them, but I think they would naturally be nervous to have to address an angry mob, you know. And so, I think that that’s where I can also help to improve communication. And what are these plans? What is the amphitheater? How’s it going to be used?
County 17: Some might say Camporee dug their own grave, though, on some level.
Lyles: Can you articulate what that means?
County 17: I feel like some people in the community, I mean, their leadership, as far as I understand — now I’m new too — but their leadership, as far as I understand, has been consistent throughout the decision-making process. It’s not like you, your situation, where you just, you know, you got in here, where you didn’t have any control over like the past couple years, obviously. But they did.
Lyles: From what I have observed through my own lenses, I think that they really see Gillette as this incredible destination. I think there’s the “Spirit of the West,” if you will, that’s very attractive in terms of marketing. So they’re having to think about how do you incentivize 50,000 people to show up, and so I think they love the idea of the American West. I think the world loves the idea of the American West. And so they’re, they’re taking advantage of our strengths.
I believe the way that folks at the Camporee came to learn about Gillette was that they’d picked up literature at a convention somewhere. And that went into someone’s briefcase and was sitting on the shelf. And as they were starting to think about where would make sense for us, they came across it, and so it wasn’t necessarily that there was a direct solicitation to bring them. Now, what those conversations look like, between the time that they made that first phone call and today, I’m still learning. And I don’t know all the ins and outs and probably never will.
But I can say that one of the reasons why CAM-PLEX exists is to be an economic development driver and to help smooth some of the ebbs and flows and diversify the economy. And so, through that lens alone, I can see where there’s a lot of value to solicit this kind of eventing.
County 17: How so?
Lyles: Well, the impact of 50,000 people coming to a community financially is substantial. And so if they’re buying gas, which I’ve heard a lot reported, you know, “It’s only the gas stations will be helped,” or “Only this or that will be helped.”
I can speak to understanding how they’re going to interact with community, and those ideas that they will only buy gas, or they will only be here on the grounds. Those are just not truths.
The reality is, is that they’re working very hard to create, really tourism opportunities for their campers outside of Gillette itself, and spread throughout Gillette. And I think that there’s evidence in that and watching their videos, they’re going to hotels, they’re going trying to really promote local business.
And I really believe that’ll happen. I’ve seen it reported that well, there, “there will only be fences around these campers, they’re never going to get outside of it, it’s only going to benefit Walmart.” If that was the infrastructure reality in front of us, it couldn’t be successful, because there’s no way to put a fence around 55,000 people and be successful with it. We’re going to need to rely on the larger community. And I’m hearing, certainly secondhand, that they’re creating contracts with businesses and vendors all over the region, just to make this happen. So in terms of economic development, we’re really talking about the expenditure of money throughout the entire regional economy.
County 17: But six months even, after Camporee, to your knowledge, do you think the economy’s here’s going to benefit?
Lyles: The event is going to be, you know, destination day, if you will. And so I think you’re gonna see a weighted economic benefit. On the front side, sort of peeking at everyone being here in town for that week, 10 days, whatever it is. And then yeah, it’ll absolutely taper back off to probably near nothing, other than this is the International Camporee, so an event that brings people from all over the globe, which has its own challenges. And I certainly am sympathetic to a lot of that. But they’re also within their own organization saying, that you can do your regional camporees here. And so in the off years of the big international event being here, they are still holding those other camporees all over. And so there’s opportunity to pick up some of that eventing business as well and make some of that one-time or two-time push, more rounded, if you will.
And I think that the more that those volunteers know and understand CAM-PLEX and the community, the more comfortable they’re going to be and, in doing that type of event.
County 17: So smaller contingents.
Lyles: Yes, exactly. Yeah. Well, that’s what we’re being told. Now, proof is in the pudding if it has to happen, but I think part of the horse I chose to saddle here — and I’m sorry, I’m sort of an old cowboy type. I’m sitting in a suit and tie today, but wearing Wrangler jeans most days. — I think that the “If you build it, they will come” mentality is never a wise approach, but I will also say Gillette actually has proven that it can be successful, in that the Wyoming Center, when it was built — granted, it has a history on its own — the Wyoming Center from everything that I’ve done in my research, before I came, has proven to be an unbelievable success, right for the community and for the region, and is continuing to be. So is it worth investing in infrastructure so you can support these types of events? Probably. But without great leadership and clear vision, it’s certainly going to be more hamstrung than the alternative.
I can say that I’ve had conversations with our partners at the Camporee. And they’re very organized. They seem to have a very clear plan as to what they need and how they’re organizing it. So I’m now in sort of a “trust but verify” mode, that, yes, it looks like we have enough porta potties figured out. But I can’t just rely on word of mouth that that’s actually happening. I have a responsibility: The community is protected, just like they are protected and their youth are protected. So yeah, it’s a big job.
County 17: It is.
Lyles: And I think it’s natural for skepticism to be the leading sentiment until experience eliminates skepticism. And I think that’s exactly where we’re at. We are in a situation where “If you build it, will they come?” Well, we’re skeptical of that type of management. So there now has to be proof in the pudding. And my senses are, after three weeks of being on the job, that there are big communication holes. And there is a need for some centralized organization of the larger effort because many of the different entities involved are sort of preparing for themselves their areas of expertise. But they’re also in a waiting pattern to know, “But when is it appropriate to address this next issue?” And that’s where I think I’m going to be able to offer a little bit of help, right? Just again, somebody actually being in the seat. And I’m sure there’s a lot of things that I still don’t know, and I’m about to step in it at the same time. Like I said, I didn’t saddle the horse and pull the cinch strap without knowledge that this was going to be a big deal. And I came into it knowing that I wasn’t going to make conclusions as to if it was going to be a good or a bad thing. It was that those that came before me made a promise. And I’m gonna honor the promise.
County 17: So where are you from, anyway? What is your knowledge, as you’ve mentioned a couple of times here?
Lyles: I don’t know, sometimes I think the big guy upstairs sort of grabs me by the shirt collar and says, “Aaron, go here.”
So I grew up in Big Timber, Mont., on a ranch north of Big Timber in the foothills of the Crazy Mountains. And so I’m a ranch kid. But, I was really small.
I think that when I started my senior year I was 4 foot 11 inches and 97 pounds. So doing all of those ranchy, rodeo things that my family is used to doing it, I just physically wasn’t capable. But, others and I think I had a little bit of talent for singing. And so, I was in 4-H, I was in FFA. I sang in the National FFA choir. And music really pulled me to go to college for music.
I started at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. I had met my wife there, and we both had to coincidentally transfer to Belmont University, in Nashville, Tenn. And at Belmont, I think my Western upbringing did me some favors there. I would sort of hang around and kind of work for free. And they liked that. And so I got pulled into a role with Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios and Historic RCA Studio B, where I got to work as a staff member. I got to really focus on audio engineering, so I actually have a degree in business with a focus in music business audio engineering. And so a unique dovetail here with CAM-PLEX and the facilities here.
But the music industry doesn’t really pay a whole lot now, and so we were looking at wanting to buy a house. We had a friend who applied to work for the Boy Scouts, and he reached out to me and encourages me to apply.
I didn’t really have any ambitions to get out of the music scene; I had been working with folks in the same studio as George Strait, Bob Seger, Yo-Yo Ma, really amazing access to amazing talent…but I wanted to buy a house. And so I went to work for the Boy Scouts.
And luckily, the Middle Tennessee Council there was a very influential Council within the Boy Scouts of America. Sure, you have small councils, you have big councils, but Middle Tennessee was a heavyweight, and they began teaching me how to walk into boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies, to ask for money. They groomed me to be a professional development person as an executive with the Boy Scouts.
After doing that for a while, I got a phone call that my grandmother had cancer. And there really wasn’t anyone else in the family to be able to take her place and keep it in the family. So I did a transfer with the Boy Scouts to Montana. But Scouting is different in Montana. Camping isn’t as cool since they have access to all sorts of the outdoors already.
And so I did board training workshop for the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, just helping nonprofits, and they offered me a position. And I was pretty reticent to do that when you go to these trainings, that can happen. But through a relationship with a couple of those board members, I decided to jump ship from the Boy Scouts. And that was a difficult decision because I was very happy with the Boy Scouts.
Working with Montana Campbell Hall of Fame was a fascinating experience. And I loved every minute of it.
And then, again, family came calling. And so I was called to Colorado. I have two daughters, 8 and 10 right now. And I have two young nephews similar in age and we just, All my siblings were getting older. The reasons for being in Montana outside of the property were changing. And so we went to Colorado.
And I was looking through a Montana newspaper while sitting in Colorado and saw the CAM-PLEX opportunity and I thought, “How strange is it that there’s this facility where you can have a world-class theater and the National High School Finals Rodeo all in the same property?”
And I cannot think of a better but more unique marriage of interest to myself than that and my background, so I applied. Fast forward, here we are.
County 17: So what were you doing in Colorado, again, I’m sorry?
Lyles: My wife’s family is there. So there was that connection. I spent the last four years as a general manager of a specialty trade construction company, building the skeletons of large buildings, with structural steel.
County 17: And what did you learn there that you think you can apply here?
Lyles: Well, I certainly in terms of management of construction efforts, that’s a skill that is to do well, you have to sort of be steeped in really a career. That’s an entire life’s path right there. And I was just very fortunate to get to do that at a very high level at a very successful company. So I think when it comes to construction efforts here, I certainly understand how to run a profitable effort.
I think when public dollars are involved, sometimes those costs can run, and coming from the private sector and understanding how that works, I think, if large construction efforts ever were to happen, I think that those experiences are going to serve us all very well to keep costs as planned.
We live in a world right now, where cost containment is everything. And even a piece of plywood right now is so unpredictable that you have to have pretty savvy leadership in play to make this feasible. And I also think that it takes somebody with a little bit of experience and understanding, not just design and architecture and those processes that go into it, but also just a pragmatic approach to business and in dealing with everyone involved in that process. And sometimes if you don’t have a jack of all trades, in play, the individual trades can really run away on you. And so that’s, I think that that’s what I can offer here. I’m sort of a jack of all trades.
County 17: And then kind of on the financial angle here. You’ve got a great background. I mean, there’s not really a question about that…
Lyles: I’m lucky in that regard.
County 17: I guess, how are you going to prioritize events planning? I mean, there’s there’s so much going on. I understand there’s sometimes a difference between what the community wants and what the lineup is like, maybe larger events haven’t seen much traction here, whereas they might be interesting to the community.
Lyles: I think I haven’t heard a lot about that if there’s a disconnect between programming yet since I’ve only been on the job for three weeks, but I have got a sense that, I’ll put it like this: Gillette is a community of just roughly 35,000 people. That’s a small market for the type of facilities we have here. And so, especially in the culturally agricultural community, you have events like rodeos where we could put them on every day, but is anybody actually going to attend? You can exhaust certain types of eventing. Those are the types of concerns that I have, not necessarily about rodeos, but are we putting on the types of events that really motivate people to want to come to shows. And I actually think that our marketing team which is relatively young and new, has sort of done a good job here as of recent to find things that the community is interested in. What does that history look like? I haven’t yet had the time or opportunity to go through all the annals of eventing to know what was a success or what was a failure, but to take advantage of our theater fully, it is absolutely a central goal of mine.
What is unique about the theater is that we can have the third-grade class from a local elementary school here, and be able to use the facility for far less than it even costs to turn the lights on. And I love that reality.
What that does is it creates a heightened need to have very successful events that help offset some of that reality. Because even though we’re subsidized through the city and county, for operations, we still have to be able to produce enough revenue to fill the gap. And proper eventing is central to that. And we have to make sure that we continue to earmark and reserve more and more time for the schools, for those nonprofit organizations. Because in a community of 35,000, that is the quality of life that the CAM-PLEX offers. And so that’s important to me that we don’t lose sight of that. But that’s a unique challenge for an executive director: How do you balance giving the facility way for steep discounts below what it costs to even turn the lights on, and also still find the events that will get everybody to come out the next night and pay ticket price. They didn’t pay for the elementary school concert. They were just here the night before. How do you get them to come pay for a $77 ticket, for a headline act to come in.
To be totally honest, I don’t have that answer today. I think we have lots of opportunities to just get better. And a lot of that is going to require the community being willing to reach out and say, “Hey, have you thought about this?”
County 17: So you’d like to hear from the community, to hear their ideas and suggestions.
Lyles: Absolutely. It would be terrible if we found ourselves in a situation where we weren’t listening to the community. Really, I’d be upset if I found out our staff was doing that.
County 17: What is listening versus not listening look like?
Lyles: Oh, my goodness, if you could manage that alone, you’d be a guru. That is an impossible question to answer.
I can tell you what it isn’t. Listening isn’t pleasing everyone.
Having surveys, public forums, and all those kinds of things is, is to make sure that the minority is heard. And that communication is flowing both directions. But I am a big believer that if we try to please everyone, we will fail everyone.
I didn’t take this job to be Mr. Popular. I took this job because I saw it sincere opportunity to do really cool work. Like, I get emotional thinking about the cool work that we get to do. I see the commitment of our staff, they work crazy hours, they are working un-family friendly hours at times. And they’re doing it at wages that don’t compete with other communities. So to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people like that is awesome. That’s non-profit type of work in a quasi for-profit setting. The type of people you get to work with is I love it. It’s my dream job.
County 17: So I guess what I’ve, what are a couple of your dreams for the, I guess, two years that you’ll be here? (Lyles signed a two-year contract)
Lyles: I hope I’m here for a lot more than that. I have two young daughters. And we looked intensively at the school system here. And it is our absolute goal that should the Land Board be willing to have me, if I can retire from CAM-PLEX, that would be a huge honor. And so I have to go to work every day, keeping that trust in mind. That’s my goal.
Gillette is perfectly positioned between Colorado and Montana. And so we can get to either in an emergency and we just think that it’s the perfect fit. And we have two daughters that are both tested into gifted programs. Certainly have their mother’s intelligence; they’re amazing. Gillette has a fantastic gifted and talented education program to help support the unique needs of kids that have those opportunities in front of them in life. And also they come with challenges, right? Sometimes they’re a little more anxious and some of those kinds of things. So it is a blessing for my family to know that we have those resources here.
CAM-PLEX is enough to be happy, but the community of Gillette and just the number of people we met…Everybody waves. You just get this wonderful sense of community. And every community has, you know, streets that, you know, you don’t want to spend time on and whatnot.
County 17: Have you been to those streets?
Lyles: Everybody warns me that they exist, but I can’t have found them. I’ve certainly been in communities like North Nashville, where actual real scary stuff goes on. And I don’t think that exists, or maybe I’m too naive to believe that it actually exists here. I don’t know. If it does, I’m going to plug my eyes and ears. We really love Gillette.
We’re desperately trying to find rental properties in the interim of my transition are extremely difficult to find. And I own horses. Finding housing here is a real challenge.
In transition as we sell our house there, and my daughters finished their semester of school, we’ll be moving fully to Gillette around Dec. 17. The hybrid schedule was just to allow me to be able to have a small ranch property there. And that comes with a lot of headaches to move. And so to be able to provide me, you know, a three-day weekend or so to be able to wrap up that transition process. But the intent is by fully 100%, by Jan. 1, I’m feet on the ground, no longer going back and forth.
County 17: What are a couple of the things that you’re looking forward to in the position? I mean, obviously, you’ve mentioned quite a few things already, that you’re really excited to be here and everything. But is there anything a little bit more concrete?
Lyles: I look forward to working with the landlord and through our master planning process, particularly so that we can really develop a clear vision for what the future of CAM-PLEX looks like.
And for those in the community that sort of wonder who will be making those decisions, what’s very cool about this master planning process is that the community gets to be involved.
So if you believe that we need to build an arena to accommodate the future of the National High School Finals Rodeo, you get to speak up and say I believe in this. If you don’t believe that that should be happening, you also get to have a voice on this.
As a new guy in town that could not be more timely for me as an executive director to be able to be a part of that process.
It’s not an inexpensive effort. But without it, it’s sort of like having a ship without a rudder. And I feel that there’s probably a lot of folks in the community who feel like that might be the case. And so, to that end, I think it will really give the community confidence that they have an opportunity to participate in the future of CAM-PLEX. And that, to me is extremely important.
For our ag community, I think that without having been a beneficiary of those 4-H and FFA, I wouldn’t have been given both the opportunity or even the confidence to do what I do today. And so I owe directly to programs like that, who I am. I know that with the scheduling of the Camporee and fair and all of those things; again, decisions made before I came, but as far as an ambassador and a believer in the programs and making sure that they are at the table of these conversations. I have their back.
And on the flip side, I think that, as far as a vision, I’m looking forward to providing input myself into the master planning process and, and our facilities here. I’ve been looking at the state of our equipment. There are some things that it surprised me that we have the resources we do and they’re in great shape. Other things are really, really not in good shape.
County 17: Like what?
Lyles: Well, livestock handling panels, just everything looking a bit worn and tired. That type of equipment gets a lot of abuse. And not just from livestock, but from physically moving in and out of spaces, is terribly damaging on things. And that’s what we do here at CAM-PLEX. We move stuff in and out to facilitate different events. So there are real needs, that I need to make aware to our community so that when it comes time to talk about getting those things fixed, everybody really knows the true status. And I think those that actively use our ag event side of the facility, really understand that there’s, some big holes out there that needed to be filled.
We’re lucky that the Heritage Theater has had a recent remodel. And so that part of the facility is right feels fresh.
On the ag side, we really need to understand what future eventing is going to look like here, and to have the community to give us feedback as to “Is this the spirit and character of CAM-PLEX moving forward in terms of ag eventing?”
It also isn’t generating a rodeo certainly has a lot of economic impact. It pulls people in from a vast area and region. But is that the best use and leverage of any activated space? I’m learning and listening to understand really, what we can do.
I think back to your “What is success in listening?” I think success in listening is being able to have gone through at least the listening process, and then make discerned and proper judgment calls that are well-informed.
And that’s the best we can ever really do. We never know when the next time the economy is going to surprise us. But we need to always be actively listening.
County 17: Anything else you want people to know?
Lyles: I mean, what do you think they should know? I’m a terrible evil, no good, very bad guy that just…you know, I think with me, what people will find is that I speak what’s on my mind. But I tried to do it professionally and with respect always at the forefront.
So if I don’t believe something is right, I think you have to act accordingly. And so back to all of those decisions that came before me. I own them now. And I will make sure that the promises made are promises kept. And the decisions we make in the future, you have a commitment from me and my office, that there are going to be no closed doors. We’re not going to be afraid to chat with the media. We want to invite the public fully back into CAM-PLEX.
And I would offer this, if you were a former Land Board member and you really haven’t been plugged back into CAM-PLEX, here’s an invitation to reach out to me. And let’s get to know each other, because I think that you’re going to be amazingly informed and be able to offer insight and wisdoms. I’ll come to my own conclusions and my own judgments.
I want anybody in the community that maybe feels like “I used to be so involved, and now I’m not or maybe I haven’t felt like I walked out the room,” maybe the winds of life have just drifted you away…I’m new. And I’d like to open the doors and say, “We can all be new again together.”
And for those of them that are actively engaged in or here, know that, that I’m not here to turn their world upside down and dramatically do anything to revolutionize something that for all intents and purposes has been a great success, you know. CAM-PLEX is a success, and I wouldn’t — I don’t know, I might have tackled the job even if it wasn’t a success because I love a good challenge — but the good news is, I can’t think of anywhere else on the planet, in a community of this size, that we have invested in a quality of life the way that we have here. And that is exciting to be a part of. Everything about it gives you the tingles.