If you move to Wyoming to work in oil or gas you probably know to expect long hours and a big paycheck. You might even know to expect to be sleeping in your car. Housing is a perennial issue in boomtowns, one that pits the needs of energy workers against the interests of long term residents and there’s no easy fix.
When Richard Kail retired to the Northwestern Wyoming town of Pinedale in the late 1990s it was a sleepy place mostly getting by on jobs in tourism and government. Kail bought some apartments and a hotel in Big Piney, about thirty miles south of Pinedale. He did steady business--nothing special. That is, until around 2005, when he started to get a lot more calls.
By the mid-2000s a new technology called hydraulic fracturing had opened up thousands of natural gas wells around Pinedale. Hundreds of energy workers descended on the area--all looking for a place stay.
“There were continually calls,” Kail told me in his Pinedale home. “They were willing to pay just about anything you ask them for [a room]. There was a real frenzy for finding places.”
The demand for housing was just too much for the area to handle, said Steve Smith, mayor of Pinedale from 2006 until last June. “At the end of the day we just couldn’t pull it together here.”
Pinedale scrambled to react to the boom, but there never was enough as housing as their were energy workers searching for a place to stay. What got in the way? First, the free market.
“Everything was going up and up in Pinedale,” Smith said. “Folks that had lived here for a long time that might have been valued for 100 or 150 thousand dollars now selling for 300 thousand dollars. In that market it is very difficult to find land to put in attainable housing.”
The second issue is the sewer lines and roads and stoplights: all the stuff a town has to build along with housing.
“Previous administrations had long term plans to improve infrastructure. But when you have this many new people coming, and this much new traffic on your roads...it took us some time to crawl out from behind that eightball.”
The third big issue, which was more of a question for Pinedale, is a little more abstract: do you make the energy workers a part of the town, a part of the community, when you know most of them probably aren’t going to stick around? For Mayor Smith, the answer was yes.
“I wanted those people coming in to our community to be part of our community,” Smith said. “To pay sales tax and property tax and enroll their kids in school. I thought that was important, and I still do.”
Smith says locals welcomed the idea of their bars and diners filling up with energy workers. But when it came to housing he was overruled. A housing report commissioned by the town in 2008 recommended it limit new residential development to cushion the real estate values of long term residents. And that is pretty much what happened--ultimately very little worker housing was built. Fast forward four years and the same scenario is playing out again, this time in the Northeast Wyoming town of Wright.
Roger Jones has developed apartments and townhouses in energy towns in Wyoming and the Dakotas. Right now he’s building some apartments in Wright, which is currently seeing a surge in oil development. These construction projects take an average of 1-2 years, so contractors often underbuild because they don’t know how long the boom will last. “You always want to have a waiting list,” Jones tells me by phone. He says he was optimistic about about the Wright project a few months ago, but the sharp drop in the price of oil recently has him concerned.
Unlike the boom in Pinedale, the sheer size of which caught everybody off guard, Wright has had plenty of lead time to track the growth of oil and gas work. Mayor Tim Albin says he wants to see the energy workers in the area living and shopping in Wright, but he says the town has to invest long term first. That’s meant using oil tax proceeds to building an almost 10 million dollar recreation center, but taking it slow with housing.
“We want to build for the future and have our town be a permanent structure,” Albin said. “We are not trying to just build stuff to handle the overflow and then go ‘we don’t care what happens in two years whether it folds or not.’”
When small Wyoming towns like Pinedale or Wright are hit with a boom they a know a bust is probably coming too. Even with plenty of foresight its hard to get around the fact that investment in the needs of energy workers might not be a good investment for the town.
“I mean this happens, everyplace,” said Pinedale innkeeper Richard Kail. “Nobody is prepared. Those things just happen and we adjust and--it’s a bitch.”