Day 19: You Manage Growth, Or It Manages You
Nate Hegyi, rural reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, is embarking on a 900-mile cycling trip crisscrossing the continental divide in August and September, interviewing and listening to Americans ahead of the 2020 election. You can follow along on social media, an online blog and this "Where Is He Now?" map.
September 14: Rawlins to Saratoga, 40 miles
An important note here: These are my first-glance takeaways. Think of this as a reporter's notebook. A mosaic of voices over the next few weeks, cycling 900 miles across four states and dozens of small towns.
It’s a catchup day. I spend the morning finishing journal entries and then I set off towards Saratoga, about 40 miles away.
My ride takes me to the company town of Sinclair, home to the refinery that employs many folks in Rawlins.
Seeing this town, it’s easy to understand why so many people in Wyoming hang their hopes on fossil fuels. The pay, I imagine, is much better than one could get working at a restaurant or as a guide in an outdoor recreation-dependent place like Dubois or Lander. The homes look clean and well-kept.
There’s a beautiful city park with towering cottonwood trees and, lording above Sinclair like the eye of Mordor, is the refinery itself, a maze of metallic tubes and pipes belching fire into the blue sky. The emblematic green dinosaur – logo for Sinclair gas stations across the West – stands staring out at passersby.
There is, of course, an undercurrent here. The oil industry relies on the whims of the global economy and the pandemic has ravaged it, forcing thousands of layoffs across the country. That’s the nature of the West’s reliance on boom and bust cycles. For many other towns in recent decades, tourism has been a way to crawl out of that hole. Even during a pandemic, for example, Yellowstone National Park saw a record number of visitors. It’s something that Danny Burau is pitting his future on.
I meet him in Saratoga, Wyoming. It’s a destination for hunters, anglers and those trying to lose the crowds along Colorado’s Front Range. Burau recently opened a restaurant and whiskey bar here.
“[Saratoga] is the worst kept secret,” he says. “Everybody in Wyoming knows about Saratoga and they don’t want you to tell anyone about it.”
He moved to town from Denver about four years ago and, like the tourists that come every summer and fall, he was drawn to the ample public lands and the North Platte River, which runs clear and cool through the middle of this small town.
Even though we’re only a few miles from the Colorado border, that state’s name can be a dirty word around here, according to Burau.
“There was resistance. I needed to prove myself that I wanted to be here. They’ve seen a lot of businesses come to town and not succeed,” he says.
Burau also took pains to “ingratiate” himself into the community. His family donates time and money, he sits on the Carbon County Visitors’ Council and he’s running for a seat on the city council.
“That’s all because, first and foremost, we love what this place was,” he says. “We found a way to be here and we happen to be in the [restaurant] business as opposed to, ‘Oh, we think we can make money there – let’s go open a business.’”
In other words, Saratoga is home. Burau doesn’t want to see it go the way of other tourism-dependent towns in the West, such as Jackson. Out-of-towners flock in, purchase summer or retirement homes, drive up real estate and eventually force low and middle-class people out. The pandemic, Burau believes, has quickened the pace of this gentrification.
“Real estate is flying in town. I think people are looking to get up here. So much has changed so quickly that it makes people uncomfortable,” he says. “But you can try and guide the growth or you can be controlled by it.”
Burau saw what rampant growth did to Denver over the past decade. He says it’s difficult to drive there, for example, because there are so many recent migrants from places like California, Texas and New England, and they all drive differently.
“There is no rule of the road,” he says. “So if we could try and set the rules the way we want them [here] I think that helps us in the long term.”
That sounds like a metaphor for what he wants to see for Saratoga’s future – a vision of the kind of town it wants to be. This is an extension of preserving its “way of life,” a concern I’ve heard in other communities on this trip. For Burau, this means incentivizing small, local, independent businesses to operate here, keeping out chain restaurants and stores, and having stricter zoning requirements. He also wants to see the legislature boost funding for the Wyoming Office of Tourism because he believes the state is driving down a dead-end road with its heavy reliance on oil, gas and coal.
“The politicians here don’t want to embrace that the energy sector isn’t the future. That things are changing internationally and that will affect us here,” he says. “Everything is going to shift. It’s not to say that stuff is going to go away overnight, but we need to think long term. Tourism is a big deal … it’s our second-biggest industry and we don’t fund it.”
But there’s also a flipside to a tourism-based economy. While it might not ride the same big booms and busts as logging or energy, jobs in the service industry don’t pay as well as those in other sectors. But the idea is that pretty country will eventually attract remote workers and small tech and manufacturing companies. Still, it’s a gamble on whether their wages can outpace rising housing costs in many of these towns.