FRIDAY FOCUS: Energized Leadership Has Upton on the Upswing
Newly elected mayor Nick Trandahl has big plans for his hometown
- Published In: Columns
- Last Updated: Jun 02, 2023
By Jennifer Kocher
Special to the Wyoming Truth
Unlike many small Wyoming towns that are struggling to grow their economies, Upton is undergoing an economic revival. Dubbed the “best town on earth,” the northeast Wyoming town of just under 900 people — with one restaurant, one grocery store and two gas stations — is chugging forward with business development.
At the helm is Mayor Nick Trandahl, a 38-year-old Upton native. In 2020, he was elected to the town council as a write-in candidate. This experience prompted him to run for mayor in 2022 – again as a write-in candidate – where he swept into office with 59% of the vote.
Trandahl attendedBlack Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, and also served in the U.S. Army as a tactical control assistant in the Middle East for the Patriot missile defense system. In 2010, at age 25, he returned to help his mother, Lisa LeVasseur, run the weekly Weston County Gazette, where she serves as publisher and editor.
The Wyoming Truth sat down with Trandahl — who also is a published poet, husband and father of three daughters ages 5 to 17 — to learn about his goals for Upton. What follows are excerpts from the interview.
In addition to helping your mother run the newspaper, what else drew you back to Wyoming?
Trandahl: I had just gotten my honorable discharge from the Army and had returned to Spearfish, where I’d been living and going to college prior to enlisting. I wasn’t entirely sure what my next steps were, as a father of two very young daughters at the time and also going through a divorce, combined with the baggage from my deployment and the Army. I had some time to relax and think about what I wanted my life to be. I knew I wanted to write. My mother was operating my grandfather’s newspaper in Upton and extended an offer to me to join the staff as a staff writer. Upton also was home. After my time overseas as a soldier, I was ready for quietude. Upton fit that requirement perfectly.
What is Upton like as a town? How has it changed during your lifetime?
Trandahl: Upton’s known for being “the best town on earth,” according to our city water tower and long-time town motto. A lot of us here don’t see that necessarily in a tongue-in-cheek way. To us, Upton is so very special. Upton sort of became a bedroom community for coal and oil over the last few decades, and when those industries took hits, Upton took a hit, too. Families sought opportunities elsewhere. Graduates used to return home in greater numbers, but now they don’t. All the opportunities from years past just aren’t there now. But we’re working on that.
Upton currently has more of a transient population than it did when I grew up here, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just different and less familiar. When I was a kid, there was a corner drugstore for kids to ride their bikes to with fantastic milkshakes and food and comic books and such, and a very active golf course, which is now struggling. There were more restaurants, a couple hotels, a drive-in theater and several other stores and civic organizations.
You’re at the helm in what appears to be a vibrant growth cycle for Upton and northeast Wyoming. What opportunities are on the horizon?
Trandahl: Upton has a new big hotel being constructed [a 45-room Cobblestone Inn & Suites], which will benefit our community greatly. Additionally, things are moving full-speed ahead with Rare Earth Resources and their partner, General Atomics, as they construct a rare earth mineral processing plant in Upton’s Logistics Center. Upton is about to get real used to seeing scientists and engineers in lab coats.
Additionally, our Logistics Center is also about to be the offload point for timber being shipped by rail from the Pacific Northwest before it gets trucked to the timber mill at Hulett. Tiger Transfer, Upton’s premier railway transload facility at the Upton Logistics Center, also recently got designated as the only BNSF [Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway]-certified site in a multi-state region, which opens Upton up for a lot of unique development opportunities at our Logistics Center…Upton is primed to undertake all the opportunities posed on our horizon. We’re ready to rock and roll.
What was your role in attracting new business to Upton?
Trandahl: As a mayor, I claim personal responsibility for nothing in terms of growth. It’s entirely a group effort…I have a fantastic engaged town council and an outstanding staff. We’re all on the same page and interested in moving Upton forward. We work together and aren’t interested in getting in the way of commerce. When I was on Town Council the past couple years, prior to becoming mayor, we all agreed with former Mayor Travis Beck in being welcoming to growth and opportunity.
As for RER [Rare Earth Resources], I had a prior relationship with several of those involved from my years as a reporter, and so I was quick to rekindle those relationships when I was elected to the town council, as RER was really shifting its focus to Upton. Several Cheyenne meetings, drinks and breakfast discussions later, here we are. Also, our local Upton Economic Development Board and Upton Logistics Center have been extremely proactive at luring new businesses and opportunities. The town’s collaboration with them can only result in good things.
What challenges might Upton face in light of these potential developments?
Trandahl: The major challenges in the short term are housing which we’re finally tackling head-on to enable growth; navigating the logistics and timeframes of all these opportunities and developments; and getting the fine folks of Upton on board with the necessity and benefits of all these developments.
Are you building workforce housing? Perhaps converting old buildings into apartments?
Trandahl:. Those options you mentioned are being discussed casually, as is the possibility of low-income housing and encouraging local contractors to build. But those are just in the discussion phase. The first step, which is a requirement to engage funding for any of those other opportunities, is a housing study. My town staff is currently digging in and getting the housing study done, so we can move on to making our ideas a reality.
What are your goals as mayor?
Trandahl: I want to see Upton navigate the transformation and opportunities in our immediate future. At the end of my term, I want to leave this community better than it was at the start of my term. I want to be part of the team that sets Upton up for success. I want the town to be a better partner with local community organizations, and I also want all the town departments to work together seamlessly, with everyone on the same page. And on a personal note . . . I have a goal of developing into a better team leader. I’ve thankfully recently been accepted into Leadership Wyoming’s inaugural cohort of its new Wyoming Academy, which focuses on leadership and community and personal development. I am so very excited for that opportunity.