Tyler Domitri and his wife were tired of life in Windsor, Calif. and were looking for a more family-friendly place to raise their young son. After exploring some different options, the Domitris settled in Gillette, Wyoming.
“We just drove into town and it felt like the right place for us to be,” Domitri said. “It felt like home in the 1990s. It didn’t feel busy or stressful, it just felt like life had slowed down. We loved the country feel and all of the open spaces. You just have room to breathe here.”
But the demand for real estate in the community runs counter to the Domitris experience – it shows no signs of slowing down, said local ERA Priority Real Estate agent Josh McGrath. Despite interest rates creeping up and a median home price well below the national average, the small community of about 33,000 people has just 61 homes for sale. Bidding wars are a common sight.
When Domitri found a job at Red River, a local steel manufacturing plant in Campbell County, the family was fortunate to avoid a bidding war. And though it has only been a month since the move, the family is pleased with the warm welcome they have received.
Manufacturing is one of two major industries in Gillette, along with energy. As the self-proclaimed “energy capital of the nation,” Gillette was built on coal, but as the world’s reliance on fossil fuel recedes, residents in Wyoming’s fourth largest city are being forced to confront the changing times.
“Coal is kind of yesterday’s news and that is bad news for Gillette,” said Charles Mason, a professor of economics and associate dean for research at the University of Wyoming. “The better news is that they are reasonably close to oil deposits, so that will kind of sustain them for a while.”
Wyoming is home to 16 coal mines, the most of any state, and Campbell county is responsible for roughly 40% of the nation’s coal supply.
But that could soon change, as the city looks to diversify its economy and move away from the industry that prompted a population boom in the early 2000s. Arch Resources plans to shut two mines in the near future, with closure of Coal Creek slated for this year while a date for shuttering Black Thunder has not been set. Several other mines on the Powder River Basin are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
“Being an energy-dependent city, we rise and fall with the energy industry, but things have been going strong and we are trying to diversify the economy, as well as find new ways to use coal — that really is a driving force in our economic development,” said Steve Laakso, the founder and lead broker of Gillette-based Signature Real Estate Group.
However, due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions that countries around the world have put on Russian, including a ban on Russian oil by the U.S., Gillette is seeing a small boost in employment opportunities in the oil industry. As of mid-March there were 75 oil industry jobs in Gillette listed on Indeed.com.
“Plenty of people across the country are saying that we need to become energy independent, which is great but they have to be open to at least temporarily increasing our coal and oil production,” said McGrath, the real estate agent. “We no longer ride the big ups and downs like we used to. I think there’s always a bit of a fear, but that’s been here since the 1980s and it has encouraged us to become more diverse.”
According to Mason, the increase in local oil production jobs will not be permanent and if towns like Gillette, whose economies primarily depend on coal and oil, want to be as robust as they currently are, they need to start looking for other economic opportunities, such as wind energy.
“There are communities that offer really interesting angles that don’t have anything to do with energy,” Mason said. “A lot of these opportunities have to do with tourism and exploring the outdoors, so if they can combine energy with this, they might be able to make it.”
More oil and gas jobs, however, will most likely mean more people moving to the area, which is a bit of a problem. On the day HousingWire spoke with Laakso, there were only 61 homes for sale in Gillette.
“A level market is between 300 to 350 homes for sale,” Laakso said. “Before the pandemic we were in the low 200s for quite some time and then it has just kept creeping downward.”
The low inventory conditions, which are by no means unique to Gillette, have resulted in bidding wars, the likes of which local agents have not seen before.
“Prior to COVID we had some multiple offer situations but now we are seeing anywhere from three to eight offers on a home,” McGrath said. “If a home is a bit underpriced you will usually see at least six offers. We just listed a house a couple of weeks ago and it was at the higher end of our prices at $595,000 and it had four offers on it.”
He continued: “The market is really tight right now. There is just not enough on the market. Builders are not building to the volume they once were and of the homes that are being built, the prices are just through the roof thanks to the price of lumber and materials. But we are figuring it out.”
Domitri has seen numerous homes in the area undergo bidding wars and is relieved that his family was able to buy their home for the asking price – without competition.
“The property had been on and off the market a few times and we put an offer in on it the day before it was back on the market and managed to get it without a bidding war,” he explained.
According to McGrath and Laasko, a lot of buyers are having to seek out those types of unique sales if they want to get into a home without a huge hassle.
In February, the median list price for homes in Gillette was just $259,000 – well below the nationwide median of $357,300. But it also represents a 12.7% hike from a year ago, according to Realtor.com. In addition, six of the top 20 individual agents in Wyoming ranked by transaction sides were from Gillette, according to RealTrends’ 2021 rankings.
Nestled between the Bighorn Mountains to the west and the Black Hills to the east, Gillette is an ideal place for those who love exploring the outdoors.
“During the third and fourth quarters of 2021 we had about 42% of our buyers were from out of town,” McGrath said. “People were leaving areas that were more restrictive with COVID or places that were more crowded and looking for space. A lot of people can work from anywhere now, so they ended up here.”
Although the threat of the oil boom turning into a bust hangs over the city, residents are maintaining a positive outlook.
“My daughter has a little theater company here in town and she’s kind of betting big on that,” Mason said. “She’s here for the long haul.”
Domitri echoes this sentiment: “We are going to be here for a while. Even if oil slows down there are still other job opportunities here.”