CASPER, Wyo. — Tonight the streets of Casper are quiet. Old ice is frozen against the curbs. Snow clumps around the lamp posts and melts into puddles. A few cars roll through downtown. Small groups of people walk huddled under the chipped brick of buildings and Western signs. The storefronts are dark, but the bars downtown are warm and glow through the windows.
By Jason Shueh
The World Famous Wonder Bar is among them, advertising dollar “old school” beers in its lighted
billboard and Monday Movie Day showing “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” This is the local hangout, where oil workers go in their new pickups, Fords and Chevys, a place for after-work beers and talk. Inside it’s a ruckus.
Outside, and beyond the downtown on the outskirts of this town, known as “Oil City,” it’s a blur of chain stores and restaurants. There are Outbacks and Applebee’s, Walmarts and Targets, Starbucks and shopping centers, all speckled with Days Inn, Ramada, Best Western and Marriott hotels. Beyond these and the four large golf courses in Casper twinkles the Sinclair Oil Refinery, where trucks stand waiting to transport the petroleum, the source of the region’s wealth.
It’s the kind of oil-driven economic activity and abundance that Greeley and Weld County hope to see in the years ahead. Thanks to the emerging boom in the Niobrara shale formation, the region already is seeing lower county property taxes, added employment, revitalized roads and additional funding for education, such as for Aims Community College.
Yet — as anyone who has lived in Casper can tell you — with every oil boom there is a bust, a downfall that’s not a matter of “if,” but when. And you’d better plan on it.
There are lessons to be learned from Casper and other oil towns that have been through this cycle before, but it remains to be seen whether they’re being heeded. This much is clear: Weld’s addiction to oil dollars is growing. Oil and gas already account for 45 percent, or more than $172.4 million, of Weld’s property tax revenues. Some school districts depend on oil and gas revenues for much of their funding.
Among the questions for Greeley and Weld residents: What happens if oil activity dries up? Will schools, homeowners and others be left high and dry? Or will the Niobrara continue
to pump prosperity into the region for decades to come?