Looking Toward Sweetwater County’s Future: What Will 2050 Look Like? (Part 2)

Looking Toward Sweetwater County’s Future: What Will 2050 Look Like? (Part 2)

The Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport continues moving forward with projects. Airport photo

SWEETWATER COUNTY — Looking ahead to the year 2050 locally, community and government leaders expect some changes in infrastructure and the area economy, but not necessarily a population explosion.

Understandably optimistic, local officials expect Sweetwater County to have more amenities than it currently possesses in 2020 and even better in some respects.

No big population explosion

Across the board, local officials did not foresee any major increase in local population figures, even if there is greater economic diversity by 2050. Rock Springs City Councilman Billy Shalata estimated that the population of Rock Springs reached approximately 26,000 by the mid-2010s, but has probably dropped to about 21,000-22,000 currently. 

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In Green River, Green River Mayor Pete Rust said minimal annual growth was likely to continue, based on what has occurred in the past. Growth of 1.5-2 percent is likely, Rust estimated.

“Because of COVID-19, we’re seeing a ton of inquiries, but not many people actually moving here,” Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick Lee said. That sort of smallish growth is probably what locals want to see, and nothing more.

No one wants to see a population explosion. Even an increase to the size of Cheyenne would be quite a jump for us.

~Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick Lee

Rock Springs City Councilor David Tate said the police and fire services are likely to remain the same as today in terms of numbers, barring some massive population increase that no one is expecting. Tate added that what population increase there will be, is likely to be driven by retirees, since working-age individuals will probably continue to be challenged to find jobs locally.

The retirees of 2050 will mostly be from today’s millennial generation, with perhaps a few very aged baby boomers thrown in. 

Although no one anticipates Rock Springs or Green River becoming another Salt Lake city or even a Cheyenne, Rock Springs Mayor Tim Kaumo said local realtors are seeing un upsurge in inquiries about moving to the county.

Wamsutter: Small town, major plans

For a small town, Wamsutter has some major plans for the future, and those plans have an admirable degree of definiteness. Speaking on behalf of Mayor Joe Erickson, Wamsutter Town Clerk Shannon L. McClayland provided a list of projects for the future, which constitute very much more than a mere “wish list.”

Already better water and sewer connections are in the works for eight roads in Wamsutter, along with re-concreting of Industrial Road, plus a planned community building that could potentially contain the new Town Hall, police department, public library, Public Works Department and, for goods measure, a recreation center, along with an ambulance truck bay and fire house/building expansion, and more housing for town employees is also in the works.

And that’s just for starters. In another 20 years, by 2040, Wamsutter planners intend to develop downtown area businesses, bring in a chain hotel, expand town lots and housing for more residents, repurpose old landfill, develop another crossing over the tracks on the south side of town, develop more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and have a full K-12 school, so local students do not have to travel long distances to get to high school.

Farsighted Wamsutter is even looking ahead beyond 2050, all the way to 2070. In another 50 years, planners there want to have a movie theater, large stores (more than one), a bowling alley, theme park, a new water tank and towers, solar street lights, and fully developed support for renewable energy sources.

The Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport continues moving forward with projects. Airport photo

It’s all about infrastructure

When it comes to infrastructure—supporting services such as the transportation network, utilities, government, and education—plans for the future appear much more concrete. Some major changes are in the offing by 2050, but also a certain amount of stability. Be that as it may, by 2050 some long-needed projects look to have been completed, perhaps well before then.

Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport General Manager Devon Brubaker is expecting huge improvements to his facility by 2050. Brubaker said he expects to be retiring around 2050, and by then, the somewhat limited air service of today will have metamorphosed into the type of expansive, multi-faceted airport that most travelers who grew up in larger cities would expect to see.

By 2050, we will likely have at least two airlines serving RKS with connections to at least three different destinations and possibly four. He estimated that around 100,000 customers will use the airport annually, with half coming in and half going out.

~ Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport General Manager Devon Brubaker

Prior to the COVID-19 eruption, the airport was serving approximately 64,000 customers annually. Approximately 14,000 operations a year (takeoffs, landings) should be the norm by 2050.

Improvements to the airport aren’t waiting for the distant future. The present Rock Springs terminal is 42 years old and is becoming outdated, Brubaker explained, with something more substantial needed for the 21st century. An $18.5 million terminal renovation project is slated to get underway in fall 2021. When completed after a year and a half of construction, the terminal renovation will double the size of the present facility.

The bottom line for the airport is “multiple airlines serving multiple destinations, with greater reliability by 2050.” Well before then, Brubaker said he expects the airport to become self-sustaining, not dependent on the cities or the county. Self-sustaining would mean not only be for the operations, but also for capital projects. This could happen as early as 2024-2025, although Brubaker said the pandemic could push that time frame back a year or so.

As one measure of expansion, Burbaker said currently the airport has nine employees. By 2050, that number will likely have grown to approximately a couple of hundred. The airport chief clarified that much of that growth in employees will be for services such as car rentals and business tenants in and around the airport. Brubaker suggested there could be “63 or 64 tenants”.

Some of the projects, which Brubaker expects for the airport, include a Bureau of Land Management air tanker base for fighting wildfires, a new maintenance facility with construction slated to start in February 2021, and an air cargo facility. With the rise of ecommerce, and the increasing disappearance of brick-and-mortar retail stores, Brubaker expects a greater influx of United Parcel Service and Federal Express business at the airport.

By at least 2050, and hopefully much sooner, Brubaker said he expects a new water line to the airport. Currently, the airport must have water trucked in. All of these big plans depend upon an adequate water supply.

One item Brubaker said he does not expect to ever see at Rock Springs is a manned air traffic control tower of the type that big-city airports have. Advancing technology will make manned control towers at every airport a thing of the past, even as air traffic increases. Instead, Brubaker said a $100 million remote tower will have the ability to monitor air traffic at multiple airports from a single location.

As for private aviation, Burbaker expects approximately 10 percent in annual growth, with “added capacity to support robust demand.” Corporate air hangers will undergo renovations.

The improvements don’t stop there. By 2050, and well before then, Brubaker said he expects an increase in charter flights out of Rock Springs.

An airport is one part of a community’s infrastructure that has got to be able to impress visitors, the sort of high-level corporate visitors who have the ability to create local jobs, Burbaker said. He added that the expanded terminal will create amenities that visitors to Sweetwater County, as well as local travelers, expect and appreciate.

The terminal will propel new air services over time. A good airport is one driving force among many to impress visitors. But it’s an excellent gateway to the community and creates a stellar first impression.

~ Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport General Manager Devon Brubaker

To make a long story longer, by 2050 the Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport will have undergone so many good structural and service changes that it may well be a place that current locals would hardly recognize.

 “We’ve got our foot on the gas pedal,” Brubaker said.

This is the end of Part 2 in a four-part series on the Looking Toward Sweetwater County’s Future: What Will 2050 Look Like? To read Part 1 click here.