Mixed bag from local businesses at economic development meeting

Chris Reno of Union Telephone talks about the company's success and contributions to the community during the Jan. 27 Uinta County Economic Development Commission meeting. (HERALD PHOTO/Kayne Pyatt)

EVANSTON — Chair Brent Hatch began the Uinta County Economic Development Commission meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 27, by introducing three new appointees to the commission: Jon Conrad and Jesse Lind were appointed by the county, and Todd Jones was named by the Town of Bear River. 

Following a recommendation at the December meeting to have more local businesses present information on their impact in the county, representatives from two local businesses and one newly-organized nonprofit were scheduled to speak at the January meeting.

Speaking for Union Telephone of Mountain View was Chief Customer Relations Officer Brian Woody, Director of Accounting Chris Reno, and Director of Customer Care David Ricley. Woody provided the commission and audience members with a printout of informative slides on the company.

Woody gave historical background on the company.

“Union Telephone was incorporated in 1914 by my great-grandfather, John Woody,” he said, “and after the war, my grandfather, Howard Woody, took over the company. Howard, who is 99 years of age, is president of the company and still goes to work every day. Today, the company is still family-owned and -operated. Chief executive officer is my uncle, John Woody; chief financial officer is my dad, Jim; Chief Technology and Operations Officer Eric Woody is my cousin; and Stacey Aughe, another cousin, is the chief administrative and information officer.”

Brian Woody then read Howard Woody’s mission statement: “We are responsible to the communities in which we live and work and to the world community as well. We must be good citizens — support good works and charities and bear our fair share of taxes. We must encourage civic improvements and better health and education. We must maintain, in good order, the property we are privileged to use, protecting the environment and natural resources.”

Union Telephone was selected by AT&T to support deployment of FirstNet, the only nationwide high-speed broadband network purpose-built specifically for America’s first responders across Wyoming.

Union Telephone serves the state of Wyoming with 10 retail stores and two agent stores, and the company employs 270 Wyoming residents, with 190 of those within Uinta County. It has 412 broadcast locations covering 190,000 square miles, Woody said. The company has 16 local telephone exchange areas spanning 7,400 square miles, 11 local telephone exchange areas in Wyoming spanning 5,587 square miles and 378 microwave backhaul network links.

Woody said they are furiously working on 560-plus miles of multiduct fiber optic facilities, along with a multi-state, redundant 100 Gbps fiber ring that goes from Mountain View to Denver to Salt Lake City and back to Wyoming and carries most of their traffic. Union Telephone is licensed for wireless operations in the entire state of Wyoming, plus northwest Colorado, parts of northeast Utah and parts of Idaho and Montana.

Woody said the company is currently investing in bringing gigabyte service to residents and businesses with fiber-to-the-premise projects in Saratoga, Pinedale, and Rock River. They are building broadband to rural communities in Farson, Eden, Boulder, Daniel, Big Piney, Marbleton, LaBarge, Granger, Opal, Hilliard, and Piedmont; building 150 miles of fiber; upgrading 180 towers; and providing new VOIP  (Voice Over Internet Protocol) service. Union was also awarded a bid from the state to build in Hilliard and Piedmont.

“We are trying to expand, but it takes a lot of time to do it economically,” Woody said. “We also want to provide a higher-speed broadband. It takes forever — months to years — to get through the permit process, especially with BLM and federal requirements such as cultural inspections. It took us five years to get the permit to go from Opal to LaBarge.”

Union Telephone employs its own maintenance crew who provide all-season construction and maintenance operations, Woody said. The crew maintains towers averaging 80 to 90 feet in height with a few that are taller than 250 feet. Woody said the tower on Elk Mountain is one of the most difficult to maintain because, in the winter they, have to go over 10 feet of ice to even get to it. The company owns a specialized fleet of all-terrain vehicles to help with maintenance.

“We pay for registration and taxes on all of our equipment,” Reno, Union’s director of accounting, said. “Last year that alone was over $139,000 paid to Uinta County. In 2020, we paid $109,000 in property taxes and over $140,000 in real estate taxes. We have 270 employees in high-paying jobs including engineering, construction, operations, retail accounting, marketing, human resources and information technology. Last year, the gross earnings paid to our Uinta County employees, not including benefits, was just over $14 million.”

Commission chair Hatch asked Woody if it was difficult to find employees. Woody and Reno both responded that it depended on the job position. Reno said finding housing for employees transferring to Uinta County was the biggest obstacle. 

Woody and Reno cited some of the ways the company has given back to the state and to Uinta County through donations and volunteer efforts. Due to the pandemic, Union installed Wi-Fi hot spots in school parking lots and also outside their retail stores in Saratoga, Rock Springs, Mountain View, Evanston, Laramie, and Riverton. The company also increased the internet speeds at no cost to its customers the spring and summer of 2020, Woody said. They recently donated $160,000 worth of iPhones to the Evanston Youth Club, and employees regularly volunteer and provide health supplies for the annual Evanston Regional Health Fair.

“What can we do to help your business?” Hatch asked.

Reno answered, “Tell you friends and family if they are using anybody but Union they are crazy. With our company the money stays here in the county and state. With the other companies the money goes out of state and maybe even out of the country. Keep the money in Wyoming.”

Addressing the Commission next was Brad Bateman, owner of Cazin’s and Ace Hardware.

“I was born and raised here in Evanston and took over the business in December 2017. We’ve been having a tough time,” Bateman said. “The layout of the building for both a hardware and furniture store is limiting our inventory. However, our online sales have been increasing due to the pandemic, and that’s been good. Ace is doing a good job and people can order and pick it up at the door.”

Bateman said he has 20 employees in the winter, and that increases to 25 in the summer months.  The challenge, he said, is the necessity to order seasonal inventory months ahead, creating storage problems.  He is looking at ways to move the office to the back of the building, he said, but because it is such an old facility there are problems with doing that — so they are looking at different options.

Bateman said Cazin’s still provides delivery —  even as far as to LaBarge — and they try to schedule the days to accommodate buyers. Bateman said they are attempting to track and provide the kind of inventory that people need and want. They interact with stores in Kemmerer and Bridger Valley so they can avoid duplication of services.

The last speaker was Mark Tesoro who, gave a brief update on SWOT (Southwest Wyoming Off-Road Trails). SWOT is now incorporated as a nonprofit and has elected officers. Tesoro, president of the organization, said the Uinta County Commission had approved 13 county roads to be used by SWOT and the last obstacle was access to the county road at the Painter exit. 

“SWOT had a positive meeting with WYDOT and they are considering giving us access from the state highway. Sens. (Dan) Dockstader and (Wendy) Schuler are on board with their support,” Tesoro said. “We hope to get off the ground by this coming summer. Our remaining challenges are to get all the towns in southwest Wyoming connected with trails. The state trails system is very supportive of that. It will benefit all the towns economically.

Evanston Community Development Director Rocco O’Neill then provided an update on the economic development webpage. O’Neill provided a printed report from the web developer Golden Shovel. The site has experienced a 20% increase on number of hits in the last month and most are from Wyoming, Utah, and the Pacific Northwest.

Mark McGurn who has been communicating with the Inland Port group in Utah said that it will be 18 to 24 months before anything solid happens on the port, and then they will come here.

Jesse Lind reported that the oil and gas industry is experiencing difficulties due to new executive orders but Powder River Basin is on private land, so there is a little more activity there. Lind added that the Jonah Fields are still “plugging along.”

Gary Welling said the wind project in the county will be picking up and they had asked the Siting Commission for an extension, which was granted. The county planning and zoning commission had received an application for a conditional use permit for a data center to be build southeast of Evanston that would employ six to nine people.

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