CASPER, Wyo. — Booms and busts are written on well-worn
pages in Wyoming’s history book, and developers study them intently
before investing the time and money to build a neighborhood.
The Douglas housing market was already tight when oil and gas
activity began picking up about three years ago. The shortage has only
worsened since drilling quickened.
Developers blame the shortage on the rigorous process of securing
money, a subcontractor bottleneck and an unrelenting tide of people
flowing into Converse County. They say they are building for the long
term, not chasing a tide of temporary workers who will inevitably leave.
In the last half of 2013, vacancy rates dipped below 2 percent. There
seemed to be more people everywhere, said Converse County Treasurer
Joel Schell. However, no official data documents how many have moved to
Douglas and how many of those are just temporary, he noted.
The lack of demographic data makes planning harder for people like
Scott Sutherland, director of real estate procurement for Casper-based
Granite Peak Development.
Sutherland explained reliable census data is available for places
like Casper and Cheyenne but not for Douglas. That means hiring a
consultant to complete a housing study.
He compared it to trying to count the number of homeless people in a
city, if those homeless people were spread out around an entire region.
Consultants take into account variables ranging from the number of
illegally parked trailers to how many people are employed near Douglas
but live in Casper, where housing is available.
It’s more art than science, so consultants tend to be conservative
when estimating how many housing units are needed in an area, Sutherland
Related: Our energy boom: Market currents
“The data may not be as good, and it is more expensive,” Sutherland
said. “It can be a detractor for a lot of people that have a gut feeling
something is going on, but to provide proof to a bank is a whole
Granite Peak is the developer for the Douglas Business Park, a
37-lot, nearly 50-acre project ringing the planned Eastern Wyoming
College campus. The project was originally designed for industrial use,
but conversations with city leaders and approval of a bond for the
campus led Granite Peak to set aside much of the property along the
river for apartments and condos.
Another challenge is scale. All construction projects have fixed
costs, regardless of their size. Large developments are able to spread
those costs throughout the project, making them more economical than
That’s why it’s cheaper to build in Casper than Douglas, which, with
its smaller population, is less likely to economically support a larger
project, explained Granite Peak partner Dan Guerttman.
“So where are you going to build if both places have the same demand?” Guerttman pointed out.
Still, the math is adding up. Sutherland said he doubts any
developers are questioning whether Douglas’ boom is a short-lived bubble
ready to pop. Consequently, he’s seeing more companies hit the
But the acceleration comes with its own set of problems in a small town with a limited supply of subcontractors.
Sutherland said Granite Peak must reach farther outside the region to
find builders who aren’t already busy. In the recent past, Colorado
contractors helped keep costs down. Today, firms up and down the Rocky
Mountain region and all the way into North Dakota are busy in their own
And that narrows profit margins further. Demand is still high enough,
however, to propel several big projects in Douglas forward.
Douglas’ records recognize 295 licensed contractors, 17 more than
last year, and building inspections have skyrocketed from 527 in 2013 to
739 and counting this year.
“The number of inspections tells the story. That’s a huge increase,”
said Tony Tolstedt, Douglas city administrator. “It’s a little bit of a
two-headed monster, because we want to promote good development . (hold)
builders accountable but also (streamline) so we are friendly to the
development the community needs.”
The city recently passed a comprehensive development plan and adopted
updated building codes in an effort to keep ahead of major changes.
One of the biggest changes is the proposed Seven Trails development, a
1,300-acre residential, commercial and recreational project planned for
west of Douglas.
The project is several years in the making, said Dustin Ewing,
general manager of Wagonhound Land and Livestock Company, and was not
precipitated by the boom.
“We started this whole vision before this energy boom started upon
us. Now we just need to stay true to our vision, and we think Douglas
can grow here in a quality way,” Ewing said.
Seven Trails’ footprint is one-third the size of Douglas’ existing
borders, although Ewing said much of that space would be dedicated to
parks, trails and open spaces. The area will feature restaurants, homes
and possibly the city’s new recreation center.
Ewing hopes to start building streets late next year but emphasized Seven Trails is a 20-year project, not a flash in the pan.
The people of Douglas hope the same can be said of the boom times.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com