The dates for two public hearings about the potential of breaking Gillette College off into its own college district have been set.
The first will begin at 2 p.m. Oct. 10 in Gillette. A second is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 14 in Riverton.
The specific meeting locations for both hearings have not yet been determined, Robert Palmer, Gillette College Advisory Board chairman, said during a recent advisory board work session.
Palmer also is on a task force appointed by the Campbell County Commission to help in the planning and possible creation of a new community college district.
The public hearings are part of the Wyoming Community College Commission’s decision-making process when considering the proposed formation of a new district. Under the rules, one hearing must be held within the county where the new district is being proposed and another one outside.
An application was formally submitted Sept. 1. The Wyoming Community College Commission has 90 days to make a decision from that point.
“There was no additional request for supplemental data based upon the information that was submitted by the task force, nor were there any questions so far,” Palmer said.
If the application is approved, it would move on to the next phase of the process. According to Wyoming statute, the application would then go to the state Legislature and from there, it would need the approval of a majority of Campbell County voters.
The county’s push to form its own community college district comes after the Northern Wyoming Community College District decided to cut sports programs at both Gillette and Sheridan colleges earlier this summer.
When Campbell County officials and residents appealed to the district board with a plan to finance Gillette College athletics through the rest of this academic year while putting together a more sustainable long-term plan, the board unanimously rejected the idea.
A formal survey must be completed by a third party as part of the review process to become its own district, and in addition to hosting the required public hearings.
Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education has been selected to prepare the survey, Palmer said.
“These are professional organizations that are associated that are associated with higher education and they don’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak,” said NWCCD President Walter Tribley at the work session. “They don’t have an agenda. They’re a third party, understand higher education and know how to do these things.”
The survey is meant to assess the need for the proposed district, the financial ability of the district to support a college, the educational soundness of the proposed community college plan and any other matters that may help the commission as it considers the application.
Once the necessary steps are completed, the WCCC will have a formal meeting on or about Nov. 20, where it is expected to make a final vote and decision.
“It’s our understanding that they will have a decision rendered or discuss this for decision-making at their Nov. 20 meeting,” Palmer said.
The public hearings are expected to be in-person, Palmer said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted tourism across the world, and Campbell County has not been immune to the industry’s struggles.
But a slow local tourism season doesn’t tell the whole story.
The La Quinta Inn in Gillette saw business drop by 50% each month in July, August and so far in September. In May and June, it was down about 30%. This includes the hotel missing out on bus tours where people from Las Vegas or California have normally come to stay while heading to places like Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
With travel all but halted for many people either for vacations or business, the hotel had to cancel 400 rooms a month the past five months as a result.
“I was hoping it would have ended a lot sooner than it has,” La Quinta General Manager Kasie Wanke said about the impact from the pandemic. “We were still hopeful at the beginning, (but) by May and June it wasn’t looking as promising as we thought originally.”
The hotel laid a few people off as it looked to cut where it could while still being able to operate efficiently.
“It’s really tough right now to try and do marketing because you’re trying to figure out who to market to when there (are) no events going on and no one is traveling,” Wanke said. “With oil and energy business being down, a lot of that has gone away as well.”
Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jessica Seders said the agency budgeted for a 30% decrease in lodging tax collections because of COVID-19.
So far in fiscal year 2020-21, which began July 1, lodging tax collections are $78,134, which is about 40% less than a year ago when $130,429 had come in over the same time.
In the past calendar year, lodging tax revenues have gone from $334,571 in 2019 to $235,959 this year. This marks about a 30% decrease, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“What’s really unfortunate is that these are normally our higher collection months,” Seders said. “It will probably get worse as we get into the fall and winter months.”
The number of people staying in hotels has declined, but it does not necessarily mean there are fewer travelers visiting Gillette, Seders said. There actually have been a higher number of tourists this year, but they’ve been staying in campers and recreational vehicles.
“People still wanted to get out and travel, but they wanted to be able to control their environment,” she said. “It’s been great for attractions and destinations, but its been tough for our hotels.”
Getting the legs back
Many visitors may not be staying in hotels this year, but they are, along with local residents who did not travel as much as in the past, shopping and dining at local businesses more as state public health orders have loosened.
The Railyard had to scale back its menu when the pandemic hit, but business has picked up since the spring.
“Last summer it was way more bustling. This summer, not so much. But it’s not been bad,” said general manager Trey McConnell. “We got our legs back underneath us.”
Since June, Pat’s Hallmark on the corner of Gillette Avenue and Second Street in downtown Gillette has done well.
“We’ve seen lots of local people coming in and shopping,” said owner Karen Cook. “We have seen people traveling through who have stopped in. We don’t typically see lot of tourists, but we’ve seen more than normal.”
In April, when a lot of places were closed because of public health guidelines, Pat’s Hallmark saw double-digit decreases in revenue. In June, however, business picked up 50% each week, which is “almost unheard of,” Cook said.
“Quite a few of our merchants downtown reported record sales for July and August. Some restaurants reported the same,” Seders said. “I think that our community definitely stepped up and helped support our local and small businesses while things were really, really tough and it shows.”
When the restrictions began in March, Gillette Main Street helped local businesses become creative by organizing virtual shopping sales. Businesses also began offering more services than they did before, like curbside pickup and no-contact deliveries to customers.
“They really got creative and thought outside the box to really cater to their customers and it shows,” Seders said said.
Gillette Main Street also put on events to attract people to downtown like Friday night car cruises and bear hunts.
“We kept going to encourage people to go downtown,” Seders said.
There are additional encouraging signs for local tourism.
Hunting season has started and has brought some business to Campbell County. The visitors center continues to field calls from hunters looking for information about the area.
Based on that, “We expect to see a great number of hunters,” Seders said, adding the main threat to the Wyoming hunting season is if other states issued lockdown orders.
Local tourism also got a potential boost when Gov. Mark Gordon announced last week that state public health orders can now allow for indoor close-contact group activities and sports. In August, after Gordon eased restrictions on outdoor gatherings, outdoor sports began.
“Wyoming has really held its own; schools are open and sports are being played on Fridays and Saturdays,” the governor said in a statement. “We want to be careful to avoid going backwards and losing the high ground we hold. Steady progress beats the alternative, which would be devastating to our businesses, our schools and our citizens.”
The effect on loosening those guidelines “could really be big for us,” Seders said about the potential for sports tourism in Gillette. “It allows Cam-plex to host some of their events that have been restricted and it would also, of course, be great for our hotel stays.”
Another positive thing that happened during the pandemic was the decision for the Gillette Chamber of Commerce and Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau to operate under one roof in downtown Gillette to save money and be more efficient.
“There’s so much that we do that compliments one another,” Seders said.
Cook said the move has brought more people to downtown.
That has helped because when people stop by, they’re already downtown and then they shop, whereas when the visitors center was off Highway 59, often times they didn’t come downtown, she said.
While things seem to be picking up a little bit for the local economy, a lot of uncertainty about the future of the COVID-19 pandemic and tourism remain.
In July, the U.S. Travel Association projected spending on domestic travel to increase from $583 billion in 2020 to $787 billion in 2021. And while that is lower than 2019’s $972 billion, it’s a step in the right direction.
“I think we all have to be mindful that we want people to travel responsibly, but we also want things to open back up as close to normal as quickly as we can,” Seders said.
A concern moving forward is how to attract regional and national conferences. The number of potential events is down dramatically because people are not traveling as much and businesses now are embracing holding meetings over videoconferencing rather than in person.
“It’s tough to sell Campbell County when those groups aren’t going anywhere,” Seders said. “I think we’ve all got to look at how do we start to reach potential travelers and associations and conference groups differently.”
One of the largest uncertainties for the local tourism industry is when things will improve for lodging.
“You always try and plan for the future and look and ahead and see what’s coming and be set up for whatever happens,” Wanke said. “It’s so uncertain right now that you’re kind of living more right now seeing what you can do now to try and capture as much as you can in the moment rather than being able to plan ahead like we’ve always been able to do in the past.”
Trying times and budget cuts were the main talking points as candidates for the Campbell County School District Board of Trustees faced questions from the Campbell County League of Women Voters.
Practical concerns for in-person and remote learning raised by the COVID-19 pandemic and financial concerns because of downturns in the energy sector and the economic impact of the pandemic were at the heart of most questions during a recent forum in Gillette. The candidates also faced questions about resources, performance standards, extracurricular activities and safety of students and staff.
The first question of the night set the tone for all that would follow. The moderator referenced Gov. Mark Gordon’s request that school districts voluntarily cut 10% from their budgets and asked where Campbell County could reduce expenses.
In his response, incumbent Ken Clouston, CEO of Gillette Physical Therapy, leaned heavily on his private sector experience.
“As a business owner, I would ask our administrative staff to come up with their 10% plan, then I would ask each building principal to see what they think, in their own building, could be cut 10%.”
Incumbent Chairwoman Anne Ochs, a 27-year veteran of the district, said prior experience would guide her decision-making, citing some of the hard decisions the board had to make in 2016.
“The key to keep in mind is you want to make those cuts as far away from the children as you can,” Ochs said.
Heidi Gross, executive director of the Gillette College Foundation, said she doesn’t support cutting teachers’ salaries. She pointed to “things that are normal during a budget process, like printing costs, office supplies” and learning resources that teachers are using as areas for potential cuts. “You always look at open positions in any budget scenario to see if there are some types of positions that can be eliminated.”
Larry Steiger, retired from the district after three decades, reiterated that cuts should be done in a way so as to affect students as little as possible.
“We’ve all seen with this coronavirus at the big universities, your presidents take a cut, the A.D.s take a cut, the football coaches take a cut,” Steiger said.
He drew an analogy to the local school district, suggesting that cuts shouldn’t happen at the teacher-level, but for the higher-ups in the district.
Questions also touched on topics like up-to-date computer science standards, funding for education at rural schools and how to improve centers like the planetarium and Adventurarium.
The four candidates represented just over half of the field of seven running to fill four open positions, each a four-year term.
Incumbent Lisa Durgin and newcomer Susan Bennett didn’t attend the forum nor did Heidi Herrmann, but Herrmann’s husband, Cody, read a statement prepared by the candidate.
“I decided to run for school board because I believe the board needs fresh perspectives and new ideas to get through the challenging times that we as a community are facing,” Herrmann’s statement said.