GILLETTE, Wyo. – It was a changing of the guard of sorts for the Gillette City Council with existing, outgoing, and oncoming members gathered at the Gillette College Pronghorn Center early Friday morning.
While the council’s special meeting agenda contained several items, the discussion between new and old members- including Mayor-Elect Shay Lundvall and Mayor Eric Hanson- made one thing abundantly clear: the council has its work cut out for it with the future of Gillette on the table.
The county seat for Campbell County, Gillette is one of the largest population centers in Wyoming; it’s 34,267 residents making it the third-largest city in the state behind Casper’s population of 59,782 and Cheyenne’s 66,266.
Campbell County is widely known as the top producer of Wyoming coal; the county’s active surface coal mines accounted for over 90% of the 238 million short tons mined in Wyoming in 2021, according to the Wyoming State Geological Survey, which says Wyoming accounts for 40% of the nations total coal production.
Thermal coal, in turn, produced 21.9% of the nation’s energy in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Coal has been a long-time major economic driver for Gillette and Campbell County and accounts for massive portions of the county’s assessed valuation while employing multitudes of residents in multiple communities.
But despite a slight uptick in production in 2021, coal production continues to be in an overall decline, a trend that has been evident since the late 2000s, per EIA, which says coal production fell 40 percent between 2015 and 2020, and surface coal mine employment has been cut nearly in half since 2021.
With coal trends evident, the need for change, additional economic development, and a potential shift for the image of Gillette were on the minds of both incoming and current city leaders on Dec. 9 during a special meeting of the Gillette City Council.
During their meeting on Dec. 9, the council spitballed ideas relating to the Gillette 100 plan, an economic development idea that calls for the creation of 100 new high-quality jobs in 2023 through partnerships with business and industry development organizations.
Gillette Mayor Eric Hanson, who will be replaced by Mayor-Elect Shay Lundvall in January, said that the plan is, in a nutshell, looking toward the future of the city and what will be good for it.
Hanson said the city, according to the Gillette 100 idea, will be looking for new, sustainable businesses to replace, whether people like it or not, coal industries when and if they go away.
“We don’t want to have the prettiest ghost town in Wyoming, do we?” he asked the council. “So, are we going to do this?”
Planning for the future of Gillette could mean changing the city’s brand, which is currently “The Energy Capital of the Nation,” according to City Administrator Hyun Kim, who stressed that the Gillette 100 plan is still just a preview of what could be launched as a part of a deliberate process that the council will need to run by its constituents to ensure it is something they are comfortable with.
‘It’s very difficult, indeed, of me to question- how could we ever not be the energy capital of the nation?” Kim said and asked whether it was something the council would want to look at moving forward to adjust how the city is perceived while they attract businesses to Gillette.
Economic development also means expanding existing businesses, Kim said, and while the council can’t please everyone and there are people out there who do not want to grow, the council needs to have good communications with businesses and determine how best to help them grow.
“We are not leaving them behind on this,” Kim said, though the council will have to consider how it can offer comfort to the city’s industry partners while they discuss the possibility of a new direction and a new image for the city.
City Councilman Tim Carsrud suggested the council consider tackling the future of Gillette using an approach he referred to as “small ball.”
“We would love to just hit a home run, but I’m a small ball guy- base hits, bunts, you know, little things to score,” Carsrud said.
Gillette can’t compete with offerings in surrounding municipalities like Sheridan, which attracted Weatherby to a community with the Bighorn Mountains and the Big Horn River in its backyard.
He suggested the council keep in mind the actions of a previous council that chose to allocate dollars to Gillette’s downtown area.
“I personally would love to go to a town where I want to go downtown,” Carsrud said. “I want people to say ‘Hey, we’ve got a track meet in Gillette and I love their downtown. I’m going to their downtown’” Carsrud said.
He said that he doesn’t think oil, natural gas, and coal are going to completely disappear in the near future, but agreed that the city does need a rebrand of sorts and that they have to be able to offer things for a company like Weatherby to set up shop in Gillette.
“We’ve got to do it. We’ve got to play small ball,” Carsrud said.
Councilwoman Tricia Simonson suggested tourism as an existing foundation the council could build upon as they ponder the future of Gillette.
Tourism is here, Simonson said, evidenced by over 20,000 visitors to the Energy Capital Sports Complex this last year and the 4,000 visitors to the Campbell County Chamber of Commerce and the Campbell County Convention & Visitors Bureau in downtown Gillette.
Businesses in downtown Gillette had record sales, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, per Simonson.
“Our hotels were packed,” Simonson said. “I think we already have a foundation; we’re not going to be reinventing the wheel.”
Carsrud said the council should consider how to overcome a stigma among the residents of Gillette regarding the ECSP as a money hole that never gets used.
He said he often sees dozens of cars in the complex parking lot when he drives by and the lights on at night, though he still has conversations with constituents who claim to never see it being used.
“20,000 visitors is huge,” Carsrud said. “It’s another base hit that we’ve got to cover.”
Betterment of the city
Hanson said economic development isn’t just about businesses, but it’s also about sports tourism and, more broadly, tourism in general.
“It’s all those things that economically benefit Gillette,” he said, adding that people get stuck on business when they hear economic development and don’t understand other aspects of what the term encompasses.
At the end of the day, he said, the city needs to consider all avenues available to further economic development efforts.
“We can control infrastructure, we can control land, those are the things that we can offer whether it’s through whatever way you guys decide to do and go with it,” Hanson said. “Its economic development towards the betterment of the city.”