Diamondville resident, volunteer, local activist and Sew Single Mom Designs owner Jamie Miller poses a question to U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman during a May 5, 2023 town hall discussion in Kemmerer. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

KEMMERER—When Jamie Miller stepped away from her 15-year career in health care, she moved back to her hometown in southwest Wyoming for a slower pace of life where she and her daughter could set roots.

“After the whole [pandemic] I decided I’m burned out already,” said Miller, 46, who’d traveled the country working in cardiac interventional medicine. “I want to do something different. I want to connect to my community because I feel like I haven’t been connecting with a community.”

She’d always been a prolific seamstress, a skill she’d acquired as a youngster attending 4-H sewing classes in Kemmerer. She launched her own business, Sew Single Mom Designs, doing custom work for paying clients. The business doubles as an opportunity for Miller to provide volunteer services. She teaches sewing to disabled and at-risk students, as well as seniors and veterans. She also provides vocational rehabilitation via a state workforce program.

“I manage to eke out a living,” Miller said recently while making final stitches on a client’s order. “I’m making enough to cover my costs, plus offer something to the community.”

Jamie Miller visits with a friend as she works on a client’s order at her Diamondville business Sew Single Mom Designs, May 5, 2023. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

But soon after returning, she discovered her hometown was suffering from years of economic decline and an aging population. The same out-of-state policies and market forces that resulted in job and revenue losses at the nearby Kemmerer coal mine and Naughton power plant had also prompted state-level social service cuts, leaving communities like hers with unmet needs.

The state trimmed wage compensation for its vocational readiness and rehabilitation programs, a devastating blow to some of her young clients. Schools had already consolidated in tandem with a shrinking student population. An outdated heating and air conditioning system at the senior center had driven costs skyward for seniors living on fixed incomes, she said, while the local hospital cut its childbirth and surgical services.

“What I’m feeling as a small business owner and volunteer is that state support has dwindled,” Miller said. 

It seemed as though Kemmerer and neighboring Diamondville were morphing into a shell of their former selves until, in November 2021, TerraPower announced Kemmerer as the location to build its inaugural Natrium nuclear power plant. The $4 billion project — backed by the U.S. Department of Energy and TerraPower founder Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates — is touted as an economic lifeline for the communities.

The Lincoln County Library in Kemmerer, Jan. 19, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The news has given residents and business owners a renewed, optimistic outlook, Miller said, and she’s happy for the opportunities the Natrium project promises. But she worries the community, after years of decline, is on its heels and unable to meet basic needs for those who still call Kemmerer and Diamondville home — let alone the wave of new needs that promise to accompany the project. 

An energy development boom brings demands on community services and infrastructure that locals — and local budgets — often struggle to meet.

“I’d love to welcome them [construction workers]. But we don’t have any services to provide,” Miller said. “Myself and the local business owners are giving all we can right now. We need resources. We need money. We need leadership.”

Ready or not?

Estimates for the size of the Natrium project construction workforce range from 1,500 to 2,000, beginning with about 500 in 2024 and peaking sometime in 2026, according to TerraPower and local officials. The power plant is scheduled to begin operating in 2030.

How many of the construction workers and their families will choose to temporarily live in Kemmerer and Diamondville is impossible to guess, said Kemmerer City Administrator Brian Muir, because many will choose to commute from Evanston, Rock Springs, Cokeville or towns in Utah and Idaho. That’s the case currently for many employees who work at the Kemmerer mine and Naughton power plant.

Regardless of the actual influx, Kemmerer and Diamondville will be ready, according to Muir. Even in economic decline, the community has hosted large construction crews for expansions at the nearby ExxonMobile gas plant, and for annual upgrades at the Naughton plant.

“​​We’ve done projects here in Kemmerer before with 1,500 workers,” Muir said. “This isn’t new to us.”

“I’d love to welcome them [construction workers]. But we don’t have any services to provide.”

Jamie Miller, Diamondville resident

Over the years, the combined population of Kemmerer and Diamondville has shrunk from about 6,000 to 3,000, Muir estimated. “We have a housing surplus. There’s been people taking vacant houses and fixing them up already” in anticipation of demand from the Natrium project, he said. Businesses throughout the southwest corner of the state are also fixing up existing hotels, apartments and RV parks to prepare for construction activity.

So far, TerraPower and community leaders agree they don’t want man camps — essentially batteries of mobile living units that isolate workers from their families and nearby towns — that have a reputation for contributing to crime spikes.

“They don’t want man camps. We don’t want man camps,” Muir said, adding that private developers are already working to build new housing in addition to existing vacant housing. “I think we’re going to be just fine” when it comes to housing.

Still, much of the existing vacant housing is in disrepair, resulting in high rental prices for those that are livable, Miller said, putting a typical rental home at $1,200 to $1,500 a month. That’s more than many residents working a non-energy sector job can afford. Miller said she worries that more temporary, high-wage earners coming to town is likely to increase the cost of living for elderly and low-income residents. 

Another trend of energy boom-times is that small businesses and local governments struggle to fill lower-wage positions in retail, restaurants and social services. That’s already a struggle in the community, she said. 

“We can’t open the outdoor swimming pool right now because they can’t hire lifeguards,” Miller said.

From backslide to boom

Another challenge for energy boom-and-bust towns is that a boom typically follows years of bust. Beginning with massive coal mine layoffs in 2016 and exacerbated by the pandemic’s early stages, the state made a series of budget cuts that reduced many state and local services.

Rita Haws (left) of Diamondville and Nancy Black of Kemmerer play Bingo at the Kemmerer Senior Center Jan. 19, 2022. Haws and Black worked at the nearby Naughton coal-fired power plant in the 1980s. Both recall the union jobs at Naughton provided a stable income. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“It is a harsh reality that at this point every cut will hurt,” Gov. Mark Gordon said of his proposed budget cuts in the fall of 2020. “It is a harsh reality that we cannot reduce spending without inciting further hardship on seniors, people with disabilities, and those suffering from mental illness and substance addictions.”

Since, the state has begun to restore funding to state programs that were trimmed, Gordon told WyoFile. He blames federal policies against fossil fuels for necessitating budget cuts, which he agrees didn’t help communities prepare for the current increase in big energy projects in the state.

“What I tell them [the Biden administration and federal officials] is, ‘if you cut fossil fuel production in states like Wyoming and New Mexico, you are cutting social services, education — all of those things,’” Gordon said. “You need to be a partner and step up.”

Legislative efforts to diversify the tax base have yet to take hold leaving state-funded public services reliant on fossil fuel revenues. 

The challenge to transition from a declining energy economy to a booming one is a major focal point of a suite of federal “energy community” programs and funding available through the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Communities like Kemmerer and Diamondville are ideal candidates to qualify for major federal grants, said Brian Anderson, executive director of the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization. That’s why his group conducts biweekly discussions with Wyoming leaders — to match community needs with federal funding.

“We know that there were declines already happening,” Anderson said, “and we need to help bring them up to speed so we don’t leave folks behind.”

Miller said those community services and infrastructure investments need to happen before major energy projects begin. Otherwise, residents could feel the impacts much more than the long-term benefits.

“I’m concerned with the impact of what’s already happening — and we haven’t even really started,” Miller said. “Our infrastructure has been failing for a really long time here.”

This is part 1 of reporting on economic opportunities and challenges facing southwest Wyoming. Read part 2 here. —Ed

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Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Gates is a crook!@@ and along with Barrasso…will destroy southwest wyoming, polluting the surrounding area into YELLOWSTONE……!!@ CANT ANYONE LOOK INTO THE FUTURE MORE THAN YOUR IMMEDIATE NEEDS!@@@ OMG AND HAGEMAN I VOTED FOR YOU.if u are part of this rich man’s game in wyoming I despise u..and regret ever voting for you!@ look into it ….they can’t even get the newest “FUEL

  2. How illuminating the article and comments are. I haven’t been that way in years. I wish thoughtfulness to replace rapaciousness

  3. I lived in Casper for over ten years and understand how progress occurs in Wyoming….it doesn’t.
    The good ol boys at the top of the food chain will make bank off of the workers and locals and the average Joe will continue to struggle.
    Wyoming isnt friendly to new ideas

  4. Our government is unique that among all other governments. We think outside of failure. The admin needs to replace sec.8 and the vouchers programs for housing and repairs,ASAP. Then put revenue into a recycling programs that can benefit all. As a senior…the struggle is real. Some of us were not offered the opportunity to grow old with income. Poor is Real. So if our government can resist the opportunity to go to Mars and contribute to Earth 🌎… we’re still here needing help. The space program can wait awhile.

  5. There is a reason why so many people left that area, it sucks! Basically just a speed trap for people driving up to Jackson or Pinedale, which, by the way, is THE most unfriendly town I’ve ever been to. But the hiking was great, nobody on the trails, too busy drinking booze and watching fox news.

  6. I now read that Kemmerer is also on the short list for a 14 Billion dollar new build petroleum refinery. These are age old issues, chicken and egg economics, faced by a demographically challenged region with unprepared parochial politicial leadership. Wyoming has a tremendous opportunity for real and sustainable grow. It typically fumbles the ball because it not really a Conservative Business minded State. It’s a small “hand-me-down” with only the ability to churn endless “Strategy Planning and Worry” conferences that go nowhere. Now, there’s a choice to act to build a healthy industry that’s foundational to an improved economy and sustainable communities (not the fake Green Agenda). This is not a “wait for Government to fix it” opportunity. Wyoming, help with affordable housing and infrastructure and get out of the way.

  7. Wonderfully written and thoughtfully explained, nice article.
    Wyoming is cought between a rich gas and coal and ranching history and a progressive world that doesn’t like history. But I have faith. Wyoming will survive !

  8. I love Wyoming That part of Wyoming will never see it beauty again. Deep pockets don’t care what they take and what they destroy. My heart go’s out to the Wyoming folks

  9. It baffles me to read statements such as, “He (Gov Gordon) blames federal policies against fossil fuels for necessitating budget cuts, which he agrees didn’t help communities prepare for the current increase in big energy projects in the state.” You’d have to be living in a cave not to anticipate the slowdown in the extractive industries. State government has known for years that small Wyoming communities would be hardest hit.

    It costs a lot less to prevent a problem than try to solve it. Government can try to stem the loss of jobs by legislative action, but in the end, the market rules. The market doesn’t care that a town is dying, that people are turning to meth and alcohol to dull pain. Wyoming’s rise in poverty, in mental health and substance abuse issues is the responsibility of state government as part of its decades long denial that the market rules and coal is no longer king.

    Maybe it is not the role of government to save towns. But it is its role to bear some responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. What that might look like is of course open to debate. But something should have been started, and something should be being done right now.

    Bleizeffer’s article emphasizes professed State helplessness to deal with market forces. Blame the feds for changing energy markets. Go to the feds for grants to refurbish infrastructure. Where is the steady hand of visionary State leadership guiding us through boom and bust cycles?

    The State plays second fiddle to extractive industries and their effects. We rely on severance taxes for government. We don’t have a decent personal/corporate tax system to support local communities upgrade infrastructure for example. So we both revile the feds on one hand, and suck up to them on the other. What I hear is Governor Gordon in effect saying to the feds is, “You created the problem with your policies, now you solve it. We are just the tail of the dog.”

    The billions in the rainy day fund could be new water piping in Rawlins, more community services in Kemmerer, a statewide suicide prevention system that works. The need is endless. While there are reasons to stash money, there are reasons not to stash it. The welfare of Wyoming’s most vulnerable is one such reason to use financial capital to develop human capital.

  10. I do want to point out…Jamie wasn’t wrong! Those bills heating bills were out of control. By replacing that heating/ac system the comfort level in that Senior Center building has gone WAY up and the costs for utilities have gone WAY down. Our next major project will be fixing the Ssewer system before winter. Infrastructure all over Diamondville and Kemmerer is failing. We understand the city employees, mayor and council are working hard to obtain funding to mitigate these issues and appreciate their efforts to squeeze every penny they can from the State, when the State is saving $3 of every $4 of taxation in the “rainy day fund!” Guess what Governor Gordon, it’s a monsoon over here!! Send help!!

  11. Good and valid points gave been made in this article. I would like to point out that the Kemmerer/Diamondville and surrounding citizens voted to tax themselves at a .3 mil levy and fund county improvements for the Senior Center, and I thank them for their contribution to the Senior Center. Prior to this the Kemmerer Senior Center building was owned by Lincoln County and was originally constructed as a storage shop by them. The UPRR owned the land the building sits on. In the last two years the Senior Center Board and the Senior Mill Levy Board have worked to get the deed from both parties. This will finally come to fruition next month. Because of State law we are not allowed as a mill levy board to purchase a land or building we have been working with the Senior Board to make the best use of funding for an old building. The mill levy provided $61,000 for new heating and air conditioning for that building. The remainder was provided by a generous grant from the Daniel’s Foundation. We are also working on repairs and replacement of items necessary and needed for Senior’s comfort and program stability. Please feel fee to contact the mill levy board with concerns or questions. We meet every third Thursday at 4:15 pm at the BOCES building.
    Cindy Miller Treasurer