Who will work in the West’s future company towns?


One day last summer, I gave directions to two young Asian women on bicycles who were looking for the grocery store. Further chatting revealed that they weren’t tourists. In scattershot English, they told me that they were from Thailand and had come to Cody, Wyo., on temporary work visas to serve up hamburgers in Wendy’s, the fast-food franchise. As they smilingly pedaled away, I called after them: “Welcome to Cody!”

Around the same time, I spied a newspaper story about two male Romanian college students spending the summer cooking in a Cody restaurant. I also noticed that Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel employed four college-age women from Russia. Indeed, a trip to the concession centers in Yellowstone National Park is to hear a cacophony of Nabokovian and Naipaulese English accents. And the Mexicans? No matter your views on the incendiary immigration issue, it’s a cliché to say that they are everywhere.

I’ve been in the Cody labor force for 14 years. At my first job, as a waiter at the Irma Hotel, I saw two cooks fired on the same day. Other staff, tired of management conflicts, quit and walked out the door on a regular basis. Across the Cody service economy, people were often fired on the spot for trivial reasons. Cody was -- and still is -- a summer tourist town in a right-to-work state. But is it starting to change?

The numbers are in: Wyoming grew by 2 percent in 2006-’07, which currently makes it America’s ninth fastest-growing state. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, our population reached 522,830 this past July, up from 512,757 the year before, for a jump of 10,000. This growth reflects a curious combination: a booming energy industry that attracts out-of-state workers, and the surge of upscale newcomers flooding the state, the latter a microcosm of the greatest demographic change in the 200-year history of the American West. These mostly baby-boomer newcomers aren’t waiters, dishwashers or hotel room cleaners.

In 1994, the Cody business community could count on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap labor. Summertime Cody was full of lively and ambitious high school and college kids. The updated daily list at the state job service office showed about 20 jobs, even in summer. Today, it is about 80 in midwinter, and up to 200 in summer -- 200 jobs that nobody wants. The service economy has expanded greatly in 14 years. In 1994, McDonald’s was Cody’s only fast-food restaurant; now there are a dozen. We have a chronically understaffed Wal-Mart Super Center. A Walgreens store will be under construction downtown this spring. But who will work there?

There are upsides to the employment crunch: It’s harder to get fired, and the increasingly desperate business community has to keep raising wages and incentives. You won’t find many local young people at Wendy’s, though. These cell-phone-toting, skateboarding high school and college kids are so prosperous -- thanks to mom and dad -- many don’t need -- or want -- to work at all.

Fourteen years ago, a reasonable rental housing market provided homes for the service economy folks. No more. As trophy homes rise in the surrounding countryside, Cody itself is gentrifying, and $300 apartments now rent for twice that. Houses that once rented for $500 are now $1,000, even $1,200. Utility costs (the “city bill” in Cody parlance) continue to rise like anywhere else. Throw in $3 gasoline and inflation at the grocery store, and the rising wages don’t come close to covering basic expenses.

It’s interesting to note that some businesses, especially hotels and restaurants, in nearby Jackson, Wyo., and Red Lodge, Mont., have begun to acquire local housing to rent to their employees. Cody’s noted dude-ranch industry has always operated on the “room and board” model, but now the idea is coming downtown, so to speak. This company-town model isn’t a solution specific to the Greater Yellowstone region, of course. Ski towns in the Rockies have long known that they need to provide as much worker housing as possible.

But here’s what I see happening: Many of the people working multiple jobs -- wherever they come from -- will be forced to leave town, maybe choosing such unlikely places as Worland, Greybull or Lovell. As for the business sector, it will “howl like gutshot panthers,” as our colorful favorite son Alan Simpson might put it, while asking themselves: “Who will work?”

Bill Croke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and toils in Cody, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Feb 21, 2008 10:24 AM

The whole country is behind the 8 ball so to speak on paying the supposed lower tier workers, who actually serve everyone.

Eventually and over time, that job status changes to higher pay or NO workers.  That simple.

What it amounts to, is the Middle Class in the USA is about gone now.

Upper tiers will either raise pay towards the lower tiers ( the supposed trickle down theory) OR more likely keep the whole system in the current mode of regmentized economics ( rule and legal quandry too ) thus the lower tiers are very victimized by that and find it tough to move up. That puts quite a few who and end up living ( existing ) in company or community town housing deals and maybe even working for less cash.

Basically we're now at the "China Syndrome" juncture of "trickle down" economics, ie years of govt favors to the preferreds ( Housed workers are just another consequence of that).

The USA has not practiced "Flow Up" economics for approx. 40 years. It's doubtfull they'll ever come up with the legislative talent to even recognize what that is anymore, much less come up with a fair deal for all enacting such.  


Feb 21, 2008 04:24 PM

There was a time when Cody was considered a great place to live and easy on the wallet -- "the best kept secret around." Sounds like the secret has gotten out.


Feb 25, 2008 05:42 PM

You mentioned ski towns as places that are seeing this phenomenon first-hand- I can attest to that. Summit County, Colorado's housing market is outrageously expensive compared to neighbouring Park and Lake County's. The county government over there is currently buying/building so-called 'affordable' housing, but it is expected to fill only a tiny fraction of the demand that exists. With the highways being clogged with commuters from those two counties, upscale residents complain about the traffic but oppose 'affordable' housing on the grounds that people need to stop whining and sacrifice to be able to afford a home. What the gentrified newcomers don't seem to understand (and this seems to be a common refrain in other mountain communities as well) is that the housing market is so skewed toward the higher end that it isn't possible to scrimp and save and buy or rent a home in those communities. In Leadville, I pay less on my mortgage for a three-bedroom house than most people in Summit County pay for rent on a studio apartment! The artificially inflated housing values in resort communities will, I think, eventually lead to stratified areas in which only the rich live, while the rest of us who 'serve' them will be forced to commute longer and longer distances to our jobs. An extreme view of this theory could run to the point that these gentrified communities will be vacant for more than half the year.

Mar 03, 2008 12:09 PM

Thanks for reading:  Seems this piece tells us a Lot more about Bill C., than about problems in Cody.  Why?  He seems obsessed with "wealthy" people.  Quoting; " Upscale newcomers flooding the state" ( A 2% growth, some of them being "Upscale", hardly seems a flood?), and, "high school and college  kids are so prosperous -----".  Just a guess, but mine is that Bill's Socialist flag is peeping over the horizon?  Thanks again.  Jim Sullivan