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In a boom town gone bust, a recreation center becomes a burden

Will Walkey May 6, 2024
Heard on:
The Hanna Recreation Center’s pool had to be drained last year.  Will Walkey/WPR

In a boom town gone bust, a recreation center becomes a burden

Will Walkey May 6, 2024
Heard on:
The Hanna Recreation Center’s pool had to be drained last year.  Will Walkey/WPR

At the recreation center in Hanna, Wyoming, Jon Ostling is giving a tour of an empty swimming pool. There’s no water — just a slide that leads to hard concrete. The white paint on the side of the pool is chipping away. 

“Right now, we’re scraping to get ready to paint it,” Ostling says. “Even though we may not use it, it’s not necessary for us to make it look in disrepair. So our intent is always to make the facility look as good as it can.” 

Ostling is the mayor of Hanna, a town of about 700 on the remote high plains. The closest city — if you can call it that — is 70 miles away. Hanna is struggling to keep this recreation center open, but it’s huge and expensive. 

“Last year, we had one month, I think one of our gas bills was $12,000,” Ostling says. “And when something breaks here, it’s not like 5 or 10 bucks.” 

The entire town has a budget of just a few million dollars, and maintaining the recreation center costs about $300,000 a year. It has a racquetball court, sauna, weight rooms and a sports court that doubles as event space. But fewer than 40 residents pay to be members. 

“What the town has done over the years to maintain this is actually we haven’t put money in streets. We haven’t put money on other services,” Ostling says.

In recent years, the facility has decreased hours to keep costs down, but that hasn’t cut it. It’s a tough reality for a community that once supported facilities like this and much more. 

Hanna started off as a company town, and hundreds of millions of tons of coal have been mined around there. Val Korko-Black, a local rancher, remembers Hanna in the 1980s. 

“There were people everywhere,” she said. “People were spending money everywhere. Every bar in town was open. I mean, there were several places even to stop and eat. And everywhere was busy all the time.” 

The school added temporary modular classrooms. There was a bowling alley, soda fountain and movie theater. 

Rows of dark grey headstones that say "unknown miner"
Monuments at the Hanna cemetery commemorate unknown miners who died in accidents, particularly the deadly explosions of 1903 and 1908. (Will Walkey/WPR) 

Then, Hanna was at the top of the boom-and-bust economic cycle, when jobs abound and communities are flush with cash. Back in the 1980s, when Hanna’s tax coffers were flush and coal companies had money to give, the town built the rec center to attract more workers and their families.

“They’d have the pool open for the kids all day long. And you were there from 10 in the morning until 8 at night,” Korko-Black said. 

But almost as quickly as things went up, things went down. As the mines were shuttered, the town’s population dwindled. Between 1980 and 1990, it dropped from about 2,200 to just over 1,000. Another local, Pam Paulson, said a lot of workers bailed when opportunities dried up.

Some of them just left their keys on the counter and walked out the door,” she said.

A small brown building with a yellow door and facade that says "Poulos' Nugget Bar
The Nugget Bar is one of the few remaining establishments in Hanna. (Will Walkey/WPR) 

Today, Hanna is mostly a bedroom community and a quiet place to retire cheap. The recreation center is a huge headache because of the high cost of staffing it, heating it and managing its infrastructure. 

But Mayor Jon Ostling doesn’t want to close the facility even if it’s expensive. He said it’s critical for the health of the community. 

This spring, he led a town meeting to talk about ways to save the rec center. He has looked into federal grants, adding solar panels and merging the space with the local library. There’s an old mineshaft under the facility, and some residents have even looked into tapping into that again to burn coal for heat. 

Resident Rose Dabbs had an idea to attract more members. 

“Have you tried sending out a flyer to the residents saying what the prices are to draw the people in?” she asked. 

Someone else yelled, “Give Bill Gates a call!” Resident Jim Noah wondered about the wind energy companies nearby. 

“Is there any way to try talking them into donating electricity to us?” he said.  

The town council has postponed closing the center even though there is no solution at this point. The main thing keeping the facility open is the hope that the situation will turn around.

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