Verne Waldner bought the Conoco gas station in Wamsutter, Wyoming in 1973. There wasn’t much in town at the time, and there still isn’t. Wamsutter sits off Interstate 80 and currently has just under 500 people. But Verne says the isolation has made his station a vital outpost for passing drivers for decades. One winter, he says, âit snowed and snowed and all the cars broke down. It’s a two bay garage, and we had six vehicles there overnight to thaw out.
In the 1970s, Wamsutter was enjoying an oil boom and the Conoco station was also doing a good deal, servicing industry vehicles. In the early 1980s, the energy was out and the city emptied.
Gary Waldner, Verne’s son, remembers this time well. âIn my fifth grade class, we had over sixty children in the class. When I graduated from eighth grade, we had eleven, âhe said. Gary has worked intermittently at the gas station since he was a child. The station survived the ’80s collapse, as well as many ups and downs in the energy industry since. Gary says it’s because they follow a few rules, like saving money during a boom for leaner times. He says,
âThe cash reserves are huge. When the income comes it’s easy to do [a] payment, but at some point it will drop. We just don’t know what these peaks and valleys are.
Gary says another challenge is that during a boom, service jobs cannot compete with wages in the oilfields. He points out that right now, the fast food restaurant opposite the station is paying thirteen dollars an hour to make deli sandwiches. “You know, it’s hard to pay someone thirteen dollars an hour when in reality they only generate seven.”
The really really important thing about running a small business in a growing city is this: you have to focus on your main customers. In Wamsutter, these customers leave the freeway.
âI-80 will never move,â Gary said. âAnd if you want to be here, that has to be your long term plan. Because you can’t rely on oil and gas. It’s a valve, and they can shut it off at any time.
Head west from Wamsutter on I-80 for about seventy miles and you’ll come to Rock Springs. The city is much larger than Wamsutter, with a current population of around 25,000, but it was also built on energy development. Like Wamsutter, Rock Spring’s economy was hit hard during the energy crisis of the 1980s. Since then, the city has attempted to diversify, said Pat Robbins, a member of the Wyoming Business Council.
“I think we’ve learned through the boom and the recession that if you put all your eggs in one basket, then you are subjected to these ups and downs.”
Robbins said that in recent years, Rock Springs has focused on building alternative industries like tourism. For example, the National High School Rodeo competition. “[It] is raising awareness across the country about what Sweetwater County has. It also increases the professionalism of the businesses and industries that benefit from it. “
But the point is, the city was also lucky. The last decade has seen a major natural gas boom in the region. This is good news for Rock Springs Hotel owner Mark Anselmi, who took a hard hit when workers at major energy companies abruptly stopped renting its rooms in the early 1980s. made a little sick, âhe told me in the conference room at Rock Spring’s Outlaw Inn.
Anselmi said he’s confident the Outlaw Inn can withstand whatever comes next. âThere is an old Basque saying ‘it’s a good life if you don’t weaken yourself’,â he said. “You just do your best with what you have and keep going.”
This stoicism, in good times and bad, is a big part of why these small business owners survived. Wamsutter gas station owner Verne Waldner’s wife Emma has been his business partner for decades. She has a saying about boom times:
âIt’s not the real world. Life will fall again. “