First impressions

RVs, campers, fishing boats and bikes are dragged out of hibernation this weekend behind tourists criss-crossing the country, Gillette has a chance once again to make a good first impression.

About 9,000 vehicles are expected to stream through town daily this summer. Most out-of-staters will notice a curious black hole out their north window at Wyodak, but they won't think "Mineral City" any more than they would "Razor City."

Campbell County has claimed oil, coal and now natural gas fame for roughly 30 years, yet tourists still don't know that Wyodak is part of the top coal-producing bed in the nation, or that Gillette-area mines cough up nearly a third of America's coal - 381.5 million tons in 2004.

"We saw a big coal mine we presume is a pit," said California's Carol Mulcahy while fueling up earlier this month at Flying J. "Normally you don't see coal pits because they're underground, right?"

Mulcahy had heard Gillette was a "working town" from when she had lived in Denver, but that was the extent of her "feel" for the town. Other tourists do not get much of a "feel" from Gillette either.

"We just stopped because it seemed like a bigger town than most places we have been through in Wyoming," Robert Woodard of Florida said last week. Woodard said the town really did not stand out from any others he had passed through on his trip.

"It seems like a friendly town, but I guess every place I stop seems like that," said Gary Smith of Washington.

It's no surprise a retail consultant told city officials this spring that Gillette needs to brand itself to catch the attention of newcomers.

"Image is everything," said Patty Formosa. "People are going to get a perception and that's what they're going to stick with. People see a place in a window of time."

The "theme" she suggested Gillette reinforce in its banners, benches and beautification efforts could naturally revolve around minerals.

"We are uniquely industrial," said Ruth Benson, Campbell County Economic Development Corp. marketing director and former director of the Gillette Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "There's nothing wrong with being industrial. And I would say we do it better than most. Let's become the professional industrial community."

But despite Gillette's "Energy Capital of the Nation" moniker being embraced by the community, she said, only locals know what it means.

"Most tourists don't get that," Benson said. "They say, 'What does that mean? Is it a lot of little atoms?' If you live here it makes total sense, but outsiders just don't get it. One consultant pretty much hated it."

Slogan or no, nothing now along Gillette's interstate corridor gives travelers any indication of what they're about to pass through - so how can they decide to stop and spend money?

Across from Wyodak's infamous coal bed is America's largest air-cooled power plant, but the sign isn't visible to motorists.

The railroads running parallel to the highway are teeming with trains packing coal to 27 states and two foreign countries, but that's anybody's guess.

The growing commercial businesses along Highway 59, along with Gillette's increasing area gravel pits, make more sense if people know the context of the city.

Approaching town, the only non-Harley Davidson attractions offered passers-by are tiny signs with the words "Cam-plex" and "Waterslide." What is Cam-plex? Might it have a summer concert or commonly host the world's largest rodeo? Tough to say.

Before anyone even gets to Gillette's third exit headed west, a billboard for a Buffalo antique store tries to draw them onward, as does an attractive ad for Big Horn's Powderhorn. Going east, they are urged to "Encounter the (Devils) Tower."

Heading into town on northbound Highway 59, an empty Burger King at Gillette's first stoplight doesn't bode well. In fact, the most alluring thing along that road is the prospect of "getting mugged" at A&W. A mural on the side of the L&H Industrial building attempts to say "Campbell County," but what do outsiders really see?

New retailers like Home Depot and recent new hotels near local interstate exits say something about what Gillette has to offer, but they do nothing to differentiate it from a thousand interstate communities.

Five or six years ago, a billboard six miles west of Gillette advertised the local visitor's center, where travelers learn about shopping, eating and sleeping in Gillette.

But since the November defeat of a city lodging tax that annually raised more than $200,000 for the Gillette Convention and Visitor's Bureau, efforts to draw tourists into town have screeched to a halt.

"Right now, unfortunately, there isn't any marketing at all taking place," said Brenda Boss, president of the Campbell County Chamber of Commerce, which has been trying since January to answer day-to-day phone calls and e-mails from potential visitors.

The Chamber will staff the visitor's center off I-90 starting Tuesday, she said, using a bare-bones budget of reserve lodging tax money. It's a good thing.

Earlier this month, Gillette's empty Visitor's Center still advertised a 2004 calendar and outdated "things to do." A couple of incongruous cornstalk bunches swayed slightly in the sunshine outside the door, prompting a look around for a wayward Christmas tree. A hand-written sign declaring Gillette the Energy Capital of the Nation peeked out from a grimy glass case.

The tax revenue and the Gillette Convention and Visitor Bureau's contract with the Chamber will only last through June, but residual income may take it through September.

The bureau's future then falls in the hands of its board and a possible decision by the City Council to put the lodging tax on the 2006 General Election ballot. In the meantime, Boss is readying to take the reins on July 1.

"The Chamber's staff doesn't have the expertise for tourism or advertising outside the city," said Benson. "Their market is in town."

But Boss, who worked jointly with chamber and visitor's authority agencies in the Phoenix area, said covering both the traveling public and local businesses is working quite well so far.

Dissolving the bureau board doesn't seem to be in favor with city officials, Mayor Duane Evenson said, so he assumes the tax will be put back on the ballot to support the promotion of the community.

"The GCVB was with the Chamber when it started," Evenson said, "and I think maybe the public is looking back and saying, did we rush to put them out on their own because they had the tax? It might save taxpayers some money if the service continues to stay within the Chamber."

Benson said that the reason a visitor's center is so important is it sends people further into town so they can see that Gillette is clean, well-maintained and friendly. Staff members can elaborate on the all-important coal mine tours and mention the buffalo roaming Wright's Durham Ranch.

And, historical tourism has been neglected by Campbell County, according to Campbell County Public Library Director Patty Myers. She said promoting area dude ranches and various other tours are good steps in the right direction. After all, who wouldn't be intrigued by standing on an ancient swamp that gave rise over thousands of years to a 100-foot-thick coal bed covering 14,000 square miles?

"Tourism is Wyoming's second-largest revenue-producer," Boss said. "We need a really concerted marketing approach. We need all stakeholders to come to the table so we have a unified voice that says, 'This is Gillette.'"

Creating a visual image in a tourist's mind is important, she said. Think San Antonio, and the Riverwalk comes to mind.

Boss has a group of graduate students from the University of Mary on tap this fall to work on image-building and branding in the Gillette community and along its gateways. But it's too late to make sure this summer's visitors are informed early about things like free concerts, melodramas, concerts in the park, or stock car racing at one of Wyoming's best speedways.

"There are ways to make our entrances catch someone's eye," Boss said. "And ways to make our town more welcoming, so that people think, 'I definitely want to stop and get off here.'"

-By JULIE MANKIN, News-Record Writer

First impressions

RVs, campers, fishing boats and bikes are dragged out of hibernation this weekend behind tourists criss-crossing the country, Gillette has a chance once again to make a good first impression.

Home Depot opens June 9

The Home Depot grand opening is less than two weeks away.

Lodging tax likely will head for 2006 ballot

City banners probably won't be replaced. Nor will Gillette see new Christmas ornaments in the near future.

Is the end near for Even Start?

Talk to Carmen Adriana Gutierrez today and it's hard to imagine her life just a few years ago.

Split-estate panel highlights CBM Fair

A recent survey of landowners with some type of development on their property shows that there are still a few people who don't realize there is a multitude of state and federal agencies regulating drilling activity.

Water, soil, workers on agenda

Water and topsoil management, workforce development and conservation are just a few of the topics that will be covered in this week's CBM Education Fair.

CBM Fair schedule

There is no admittance fee, although a donation for Project Learning Tree will be accepted. Project Learning Tree is a non-profit organization that puts togehter classroom curriculums to teach people about minerals and resources. For more information, go to www.plt.com.