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1921 - After living in the future, now is time for present

One of my memories that I like to share is the distinct thought dominating my brain during my high school graduation ceremony.  That thought was: “What is going to happen to me?”

         The speaker was telling us to look around at our classmates. He said we would never be together as a group again. He said several would die at a young age.  “You will be blessed if you live to a ripe old age.”

         That speaker was our Principal Paul Zurbriggen, one of my lifetime mentors. Tough, smart, and kind, he was a moral compass during my high school years.

         Lately I have been thinking a lot about his words.

         The answer to that big question is that now I know what happened to me over the ensuing 55 years.

I was one of the fortunate ones.  Our classmate Harlan Bilden was killed in Vietnam less than a year later. He was a short guy who loved life and would not hurt a flea. How he got into the service and over to Vietnam still baffles me.

         So, here I am, five and a half decades later, looking back on my life. And what a life it has been.

         So to wrap up my thoughts when I was sitting in that graduation ceremony in Elgin, Iowa, in 1964, I was always looking ahead. I have spent my adult life living in the future.

         Now that may have been a big fault. If you are constantly dreaming and scheming about the future, you often forget all the great things going on all around you.

         My kids say I was a good dad but my memories are dominated by all those days and nights away from home trying to make things happen and make money for our growing family.

         Our move to Wyoming in 1970 was the best move we ever made and we have stayed right here in Lander. We have had fantastic opportunities to move to magical places named Jackson Hole, Spearfish, Whitefish, Lake Tahoe, and even Maui.

         Wyoming has been our home and our home base. We have only wonderful memories and no regrets about our commitment to our town and our state. 

         During my business career, we bought businesses and started businesses from Europe to Hawaii. Things went our way most of the time as we planned and dreamed of new opportunities.

         Nancy and I started out with a personal financial statement that showed a negative $1,200 the first time I ever did one. My banker Bill Nightingale actually laughed at me when I asked for a $5,000 loan to buy into a newspaper opportunity in Cody in 1971.  We were blessed when my great friend Dave Moore from Iowa, talked his dad’s bank into loaning me the money. From there we never looked back.

         We rode the booms and busts of the Wyoming economy and around the region and around the world.  Always looking into the future, we also exercised good timing. 

         One of my favorite columns is called “the 20 things I learned in 50 years of business.”  Item number one is “timing.” By living in the future, most of our business decisions worked out. We had a few business clinkers, which were conveniently forgotten. Most decisions were successful.

         We sold most of our newspapers in 1999, which was too early but the price was right.  We sold our last newspaper (Winner, SD) on Jan. 1, 2008, which was about the last time prices were high for local newspapers.

         So enough about the future.  When you are in the fourth quarter of your life, or as I prefer the middle of the seventh inning, it is probably time to quit looking ahead so much. 

         Our 53-year marriage has produced four children with three sons-in-law and one daughter-in-law; 13 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.  We are truly blessed and it seems to me that our life’s work going forward might best be served by making sure we have a place in the lives of all these wonderful people.

         We also recently lost a dear RV friend, Gus Miller of Spokane, which probably was the true genesis of this column.  When someone your own age who looks healthier than you do, collapses and dies, well, then you take a long look into the mirror.

         And you quit worrying so much about the future. Today is what counts.

         Yesterday is a memory. Tomorrow is a dream. Today is a gift.

1920 - We are the cavalry

Let me tell you about an old teeter-totter adage believed by a great many Wyoming leaders.  In this theory, it’s believed the Wyoming economy operates in the opposite way of the national USA economy.

         It goes like this: When the country is struggling, Wyoming is thriving. When Wyoming struggles, the country thrives.

         It is like opposite sides of a coin.  Right now, we are in a “tails” phase. 

         Today while the USA economy is as hot as it has ever been, Wyoming is trudging along. A few years ago, it was worse.

         Most of the marginal businesses in the state are gone or acquired by hard working folks turning them around. It is hard to find runaway success stories.

         Another old saw about our state’s economy refers to Wyoming as “the hole in the donut.”

         States around us like Colorado, Idaho, and Montana are doing well while that state stuck in the middle of that circle struggles.

         So why is that?

         The obvious answer is our reliance on energy.  The easy answer is that when national energy prices are high, Wyoming booms, and the country struggles. When prices are low, the country booms and Wyoming struggles.

         Is there more to it than this simple formula?

         Wyoming reportedly has more government workers per-capita that any state, even more than Alaska. Those jobs usually are bulletproof. When one in ten of your employees works for government, does this indicate a lack of economic viability?  Is it easier to be economically successful in states where most folks work for private companies?

         This column is full of questions. Hopefully future columns offer a few answers.  Some of our comments sound like clichés and long-time assumptions.

         A few years ago I wrote a column about how odd it was that Wyoming was the only state in the country without a major city.  Even Montana, Idaho, and Alaska have larger metro hubs that spawn innovations, create jobs, and keep young people in their home states.

         We pointed out that 40 years ago, Casper and Cheyenne were on par with Boise, Fort Collins, Billings, Anchorage, and Sioux Falls. Today, our two leading cities do not reflect the growth of those other regional centers.

         So why did this happen?

         Most often given, as a reason, is the lack of a major university in either Casper or Cheyenne compared to those other cities.  Apparently a major college is a huge economic driver. 

         Cold, windy weather was also given as a reason, which I tend to discount.

         But perhaps it is not as depressing as I am assuming. Douglas is booming with oil and gas development.  Cheyenne and Laramie are doing just fine, thank-you, thanks to huge numbers of state workers and aggressive job development.

         Jackson is in a league of its own as the most expensive place to live in the USA. Cody, Sheridan, and Lander are holding up fine with a combination of tourism, outdoor recreation, and lots of retirees moving in.

         Gillette and Rock Springs have been two of our most vibrant small cities over the past three decades.  Leaders there are working hard to keep things going up.

         Earlier this month, a panel was held in Cheyenne to talk about Wyoming’s endless boom-and-bust cycle.  It made me recall that former University of Wyoming Professor Phil Roberts has documented 13 of these busts since 1890 statehood over 129 years. This is a bust every decade. That many busts could make a state and its citizens somewhat gun-shy, I would think.

         That Cheyenne program was based around a quote from UW Professor Anne Alexander, where she said the state’s economic situation was “not going to get better unless we make it better. There’s no cavalry on the way. We’re the cavalry.”

         As a local businessman for almost 50 years, it seemed like we were always working on economic development.  People in all cities and towns in Wyoming work their tails off.

         The Wyoming Business Council has done well in my opinion. Gov. Matt Mead’s legacy program ENDOW shows promise in many peoples’ eyes.

         And yet, here we are in 2019 asking the same questions that I recall being asked at the Wyoming Futures Project 34 years ago during its organizational meeting in Ucross.  NBC commentator Pete Williams was our moderator, as I recall.

         Discussing and “cussing” economic development is one of my favorite topics. Sometimes it feels like we are chasing our tails. Creating jobs and keeping your town viable is not getting any easier.


1919 - Closing of 13 Shopko stores not our fault

Some 13 cities and towns in Wyoming are reeling after the closure of one a main local business outlet.

         Shopko closed its general stores in Wheatland, Torrington, Newcastle, Greybull, Lander, Mountain View, Thermopolis, Worland, Powell, Buffalo, Douglas, Green River, and Afton in recent months, leaving customers in those towns scratching their heads about where are they going to go now for shopping and other needs?

         To cities the size of Cheyenne, Rock Springs, Laramie, or Sheridan, or Gillette, such a closure would be a problem but not a calamity. In these smaller towns, it is a crisis.

         Here in my town of Lander, Shopko will be missed.  Shoppers are 23 miles from a Walmart and a Walgreens in Riverton but still it is not handy.  We have lots of smaller stores and shops that will try to fill the need, but it is still a big loss.

         At first glance, the closure of all these stores gives us an inferiority complex.  Perhaps our local economies are not strong enough to support a store like Shopko?

         Or even worse, the modern internet economy must have killed them off. It is a sign of the times.  Or is it?

         Then there is the scourge of petty theft and shoplifting that is plaguing stores all across the country.  Pilferage has brought down many a small town store.

         Or could it be just bad management?  Folks who can survive the good times often are clueless how to succeed during the tough times.

         My theory is that all the above may have been factors in Shopko’s Wyoming demise, but the biggest reasons this chain of 363 stores failed were greed and short-term profit taking.

         Back when these were Pamida stores (named for the company’s founder’s three sons, Pat, Mike, and Dave and based in Omaha) this chain was profitable and successful.

         Like so many companies these days along came a hedge fund or other types of moneymen from Wall Street and they sucked poor Shopko dry. When all the money was gone, they declared bankruptcy, causing terrific ripple effects across the country in 363 small towns. The owners had paid themselves $117 million in dividends over the past four years.

         Our local store was always an odd duck.  It never seemed to have enough products on the shelves.  Its pharmacy was erratic until it was sold off in a desperate ploy on the part of the Shopko executives to raise cash. Their products often did not match the season or the market.  The corporate owners were not paying attention.

         In a word, it was a management style based on short-term vision and quick bucks for the owners. 

         Thus, it is important for folks in our small towns to not beat themselves up over the demise of an important local store. And it is another reason to celebrate our stores that have local owners or, at least, local Wyoming owners.

         Phil Roberts of Laramie blames the closures on greed and especially on the policies of President Donald Trump, which might be a bit of a stretch. He concludes, “All in all, the closures speak out for regulation of pure and simple corporate-raider greed as well as a sane trade policy.  The Shopko example brings it all home.”

         Parker Jackson of Lyman says of the Shopko closing, “For those of us in Bridger Valley, the closing of the Mountain View location means that things will go largely go back to the way they were before it opened.

“We do have Benedict`s, which most use for their grocery needs and a few other things. For a lot of goods like clothes, shoes, and electronics, most from Bridger Valley will drive half an hour to Walmart in Evanston or an hour to Rock Springs. For more specific shopping needs, people will go to Utah.  Some will also turn more towards online shopping options. 

“It is a loss for Mountain View and Lyman, but the extent remains to be seen,” he says. 

Tom Lubnau of Gillette takes a dimmer view, “Bill, you are thinking like a baby boomer.   Amazon is driving the closure of these stores.   When we wanted to see a TV show, we had to wait until next week to see it.   Our society is now used to pulling a magic box out of our pockets, pressing a few buttons and having something arrive on our doorstep.  

“Shopko is a symptom of a much greater disease which includes lack of interaction,” he concludes. 


1918 - The one of a kind historic Outlaw Inn

Wyoming has many iconic hotels. The Wolf Hotel in Saratoga, the Plains in Cheyenne, the Parkway Plaza (soon to reopen with a new name) in Casper, the Noble in Lander, the Irma in Cody, the Sheridan Inn in Sheridan, and the Occidental in Buffalo.

         But one of the most unique was in Rock Springs.

         Don Anselmi had a dream. But sometimes dreams were hard to come by in 1965 in his historic railroad town.

         He dreamed about a big hotel in a little town of 6,000 people. Reason for his dream was the audacious news that the largest highway project in United States history was poised to put a major east-west link through Sweetwater County.

         With his brother, attorney John Anselmi, bar owner Mike Vase, and petroleum distributor Vern Delgado, they borrowed $1.5 million, which was a fortune back in those days.

Soon they broke ground on a parcel of land at the intersection of Highway 191 and the new Interstate 80. A photo from the Rock Springs Daily Rocket Miner at the time shows a smiling Don Anselmi digging a spade-full of dirt. He was literally standing in the middle of nowhere.

         Now a big hotel in a small town is usually pretty big news but what made this hotel special was its unique and almost one-of-a-kind style.  It would be a huge complex with all the guest rooms, meeting rooms, restaurants, bar, and swimming pool under one big canopy.

         Delgado had friends in Pinedale who were from Lubbock, Texas, who had just built a new style of hotel.

         Its design included a huge canopy over everything, which brought the outdoors indoor. In Lubbock this was done because of the stifling heat. If used in Wyoming, it would be done because of the wind and the cold. 

         Hundreds of Holiday Inn Holidomes were built in the decades after this design made its debut, but the Lubbock hotel and the Outlaw in Rock Springs were the pacesetters. 

         Today, the Outlaw Inn is still in the hands of the Anselmi family.  Don’s son Mark with his wife Nancy have owned an interest in the hotel for 30 years and have owned it 100 percent for the past 17 years. And it has thrived.

         Today, Mark rolls his eyes when recalling the unique design on the front of hotel when it was built. But to Mark, as much as he appreciated its unique look, all he can remember are all the times when trucks collided with it. One time a UPS truck hit it with such velocity two of its wheels came off the ground.

         The hotel was doing okay and became a tourist site in its own right.  The summers were busy but the winters and springs, especially, could get slow.

         Then 1971 came along and everything changed.  Pacific Power and Light, the huge regional electrical power company, picked Rock Springs as the location for its gigantic Jim Bridger Power Plant.

         Besides that boom, if there was another golden age for the hotel, it was when Don Anselmi was the state chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party.

         The hotel became the epicenter of Wyoming Democratic politics during this time. If something exciting was happening in the party, it often occurred right there at the Outlaw at the intersection of Interstate 80 and highway 191 in Rock Springs.

         In recent years, Mark and Nancy have invested millions of dollars to upgrade the entire look of the hotel. Today the exterior of the Outlaw is surrounded by new, bold, detached canopies that stand high enough to avoid any collisions by distracted truck drivers while the interior has seen complete renovation over the past seven years.

Most recently, several suites in the hotel have been furnished with unique furniture created by Centennial Woods of Laramie and designed by Russell Meyer using reclaimed wood used on early snow fences that protected Interstate 80 from driving snowstorms. 

         The first time this writer visited the Outlaw was in the early 1970s as my partners and I were in the process of buying the newspaper in neighboring Green River.

         This building makes a powerful first impression. I had never seen anything like it.  It was like walking into a giant spaceship. 

         Here, in little Rock Springs in little Wyoming, was this amazing structure. It was memorable.  Especially to me some 45 years ago. I had never seen anything like it. 

         The Outlaw is a historical marvel and has recently been listed as a National Historic Place.