With just less than 250 people, Rock River in Carbon County is not a town with a host of amenities. A picturesque bend in the road propels travelers back up to highway speed before they’ve got a good look around. But the tiny town could become the stomping ground to construction workers as a host of new wind developments come on line soon.
Federal subsidies for wind are reaching a sunset in a few years and so a boom of development is going to hit all at once, as companies try to make the deadline.
The construction of 140 miles of PacifiCorp’s Gateway West transmission line is going to coincide with the already started TB Flats wind project. As Chokecherry Sierra Madre’s 500 wind turbines are raised outside Rawlins, the Cedar Creek wind farm will be going up to the north in Converse County.
The developments will stir up much needed economic activity in the state, but they will also mean a flood of workers to rural areas. Some officials are looking at the numbers and asking, “Where are these guys going to live?”
“We know there is going to be a housing shortage,” said Brian Lovett, the Industrial Siting administrator at the Department of Environmental Quality, at a Converse County Commissioners meeting Tuesday.
The challenge is these projects are being considered individually in people’s minds, including the developers, he said.
Some companies are even making the assumption that people will drive down to Laramie or up to Casper for a job in the Shirley Basin.
That’s probably not true, Lovett said, noting the workforce reports that Wyoming has on previous wind projects. While some people may drive to a bigger city to stay – a city that can easily absorb a transient workforce – most settle close by.
“It’s assumed workers will drive 75 miles,” he said of some consultants from outside Wyoming. “If they can park across the street from the project, that’s where they are staying.”
Small communities like Hanna, which lacks a gas station, or Medicine Bow, whose gas station functions as a small market, could be hit hard, according to Lovett.
Most of the challenge is expected in Carbon County, where those two towns lie. But just down the road in Albany County, Rock River may be hit, too.
County Commissioner Terri Jones said Laramie has plenty of space to accommodate workers, whether it’s the upcoming transmission project or the wind developments. But there is more concern in the small towns.
“I think it’s almost scary to them to try to comprehend what they are going to do with that many people,” she said. “Laramie and Casper, we just go on doing our own thing. The merchants are rubbing their hands together, and that’s good. But those little towns are like ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do?’”
The county is expecting Industrial Siting Council funds, but because those are not dispersed up front, it will be a challenge to get ready for the boom.
As one person put it in a recent planning meeting, all these guys need are beds, booze and broads, she said.
And that likely means law enforcement concerns. Rock River doesn’t have police; the county will have to provide that if it can.
Albany is one of the poorest counties in the state, so funds to train and place additional law enforcement may be a challenge, she said.
The Industrial Siting Council is one of the final stops for a large-scale industrial project to get construction permits. It was developed to handle the sudden socioeconomic issues that come with industry, among them housing.
What they are working to avoid is the “Gillette effect”, Lovett said, a reference to the rapid development of that city when workers flooded in to work coal, oil and gas.
In Carbon County, Lovett said the hospital got stiffed on thousands in medical bills because transient workers moved on. Those are the kind of impacts the council wants to hear about, and see documentation of, Lovett told Natrona County commissioners.
But when it comes to the obvious, housing, he’s concerned that the estimates of available space are skewed.
“You still get vacant house counts. How many of those houses can be occupied?” he said. “You go to Rock River or Medicine Bow. There’s a house there, but sometimes I worry that even their data gives us a little bit of false reading.”
It’s not only the wind boom Lovett’s looking at. Updates and maintenance at the Sinclair refinery will draw in a sudden boost of temporary workers too, he said.
The council is trying to get firm numbers and timelines for those workers at Sinclair, but mostly they were hearing widely differing rumors.
Clint Ensign, senior vice president of Sinclair, said there is a dramatic change in workers every year for maintenance or upgrades. Those usually arrive in the summer months.
“We could have as many as 1,000 or 1,500 contract workers that come in and help us with those activities,” he said. “They are there for weeks or a month or two, until that work is completed.”
He was not aware of rumors that upcoming maintenance would be larger than usual, he said.
In Natrona County, the housing crisis isn’t a real concern because of the capacity available in Casper. Of course, Natrona has its own confluence of development, from a new gas facility in Converse County, to new wind and a potential oil and gas boom.
It’s the overlap of different projects from different industries, Lovett warned, that can be overlooked.
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