by nathan oster
A group of more than two dozen community leaders took a fresh look at some of the town’s most vexing problems during an hour-long “Brainstorming for Community Betterment” session Wednesday at the Herb Asp Community Center.
The Greybull Area Chamber of Commerce called the meeting, hoping to not only get public input on the direction it should go in 2013, but also to create dialogue about what could be done to help the Greybull economy, which lost a couple more downtown businesses during the winter months.
The first question the group tackled was, “How do we attract young people to our community?”
Frank Jorge, who is originally from Cuba and has only lived in south Big Horn County for about 10 months, was the first to offer ideas. For him, the attractive part of living in Wyoming is that, “It is still today what America was like when I first came to the States.”
Jorge said one way to get young people to stay in the community would be by encouraging local businesses to enter into partnerships with high school students in which students would earn credits and/or money while learning a trade that would allow them to enter the workforce immediately after they graduate. Jorge said an arrangement of that kind would in turn help students feel a greater sense of connection to their community.
Barry Bryant, Greybull’s superintendent of schools, said a “school to work program” currently exists, but there are requirements that the students must meet to be considered, including maintaining a solid GPA.
Bryant said students are benefitting from the industrial arts classes taught by Ralph Wensky, a certified welder, and from Microsoft Office classes taught by Mark Sanford. “We are limited what we can offer in terms of community education,” Bryant said. “We have a need for an ag program. We sent 14 students over to Riverside last year, 17 this year. If we had a program in house, that number would probably double.
Jorge said he disagreed with “the GPA requirement,” and Julie Owens, the chamber president, said a student coming out of Wensky’s class could be well positioned for success. “There’s a demand for a welder in town right now,” she said.
Bryant said he understood, but emphasized that the school district’s mission is to make sure students are proficient in reading, writing and arithmetic. “We need to make sure that is accomplished first,” he said.
Ernie Smith, a chamber member, said the town needs a central location to act as a clearinghouse, matching up young people with prospective employers.
Right now, the demand for employment is great. “Right now, we have 100 applications on hand,” said Ron Fiene, owner of Ron’s Food Farm.
Cynthia Johnson, director of South Big Horn Senior Citizens, added that the center recently got 25 applicants for a four-hour, part-time job. “Usually we get just few (applicants),” she said.
Donette XXXXX, said she agreed with Jorge. “It’s hard for kids to get a job,” she said. “If they could get a foot in the door with a local business, maybe work two or three hours a day, it might lead to a summer job.”
“It’s all about graduating with a skill,” reiterated Jorge.
Even so, some doubt young people will stick around. Jean Petty, a trustee on the school board, said a lot of kids, including her own 16-year-old son, don’t even talk about staying. “They don’t feel there are jobs here,” she said.
Cliff Manuel, of the Bighorn Basin Geoscience Center, said it didn’t come as a surprise to him.
“Until we have a comprehensive plan in place to bring more jobs in by bringing more businesses in, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “Those businesses are going to go somewhere else.”
Smith said the problem isn’t finding Greybull, it’s convincing them to come.
“We have at least four to five people inquiring every week to move their business to our location, and some even come and look at what we have available,” he said.
One reason they might not be coming is housing, said Barbara Anne Greene, who formerly served as the county’s economic development director and is currently on the board of both the Basin and Greybull chambers. “We looked into it and found that people wanting to come had more than two kids, they wanted more than one bathroom, and they had a hard time finding what they were looking for,” she said. “And people look for things for their kids to do. It’s not just about hunting and fishing. There has to be things to do. The loss of the pool will be huge for us.”
Terilyn Mayland concurred, saying, “I personally know of three families who are moving out of this area to Powell or Cody so their kids can have opportunities to do year-round activities like swimming. We are losing families because there is nothing for kids to do.”
Mayland added that there were opportunities to work outside of school when she was in high school. One student worked for a bank, another for an attorney. She worked for what was at the time Pizza on the Run.
Cathy Kunkel, the Life Skills teacher at GHS/GMS, said she, too, liked the idea of businesses trying to employ high school students, and said that her students, including Taylor Ballard who accompanied her to the meeting, are “the largest untapped workforce in the country.
“I have students who are willing and able to learn job skills. They may be basic job skills, but they free up employers to do more difficult job tasks. Every job has its components that are tedious or detail oriented, but those are things that my kids can be trained to do.”
Susan Sales said local senior citizens are another untapped resource, noting that they can bring not only skills but a wealth of experience and insight.
The Rev. Becky Anderson, who pastors Greybull’s First Presbyterian Church and the Shell Community Church, said the perception in the community is that Greybull is “unfriendly to new businesses.”
She cited Eleutian Technologies, which looked for a spot in Greybull, didn’t find one and eventually established centers in other Big Horn Basin communities. Greene challenged that assertion and added that most of those satellite centers have since closed. “Still, the perception was that the council was not interested,” said Anderson.
Anderson said Greybull leaders need to be more proactive and go out in search of new businesses rather than waiting for those businesses to approach them.
“And we have to have positive attitudes,” said Manuel. “Most communities that want to bring businesses in have something to offer, such as tax advantages or property. They say, ‘We’ll give you these advantages, now you tell us what you need in terms of support.’ We need to do that.
“I spent 35 years in aerospace manufacturing, most in management positions. I’ll tell you, you need those incentives out there if you want to attract businesses.”
Greene said one problem with offering incentives to new businesses is that existing businesses resent the favoritism. She said a business years ago planned to come to Greybull, but was turned away by “people who didn’t want Greybull to grow or change.”
Sue Taylor of Lovell, Inc., said the health of the town’s existing businesses is crucial, and that they have the potential to market the town better than anyone else. “If I’m interested in moving my business to Greybull, I’m not going to stop at Town Hall or the chamber office. I’m going to go door to door on Main Street and ask, ‘What’s business like in Greybull?’ You have to have a happy base of existing businesses before you can have good success.”
Sue Anderson, director of the Greybull Area Chamber of Commerce, tried to get the group to think about what type of businesses it would like to attract. “It’s a whole shift in thought,” she said. “But what do we want?”
Selena Brown, who sits on the Greybull school board, said she thinks the town could do a better job of tapping into all the tourists who pass through town. “Greybull is located in a fantastic place to tap into tourism,” she said, noting that the Outdoor Channel recently did a series on four-wheeling in the Big Horns.
“We have people dying to get to Yellowstone and they blow right past us, they take their tax dollars and go someplace else,” she said. “Look at Dubois. Not any bigger than us, but that is such a little town.”
In fact, it was recently named one of the best cowboy towns in the West, Brown said. “They have something going on constantly in that town,” she said, adding that businesses stay open late to capture tourist dollars.
Greene said that’s always been a “battle” with local merchants, however. “We’ve pushed that and pushed that,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons Cody is so successful.”
Fiene said his store does half of its business between the hours of 4 and 8 p.m. — and gets more customers on Sundays than any other day of the week. On average, cash registers open about 600 times a day on Sundays, he said.
Fiene and several others in attendance suggested that local businesses would do better if they opened earlier in the morning and stayed open later at night. Prowes said locals would also like the extended hours as well, saying it’s hard for her, working in Basin, to get to Greybull businesses before they close each day.
Taylor offered Lovell, Inc.’s help in putting together a “branding workshop” for Greybull. The workshop would help town leaders narrow their focus and determine how best to market the town, not only to tourists but also for economic development. Lovell recently went through the process and emerged with a strategy to emphasize its mustangs.
One possibility for Greybull, she said, might be something along the lines of “Making Tracks in Greybull,” citing not only the town’s railroad history but also its Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite, which is popular among tourists.