STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Next, we'll try to understand how the economy is really changing by visiting one small piece of it. It's part of our MORNING EDITION series called The Money Map. The series has taken us to Nebraska farms and Ohio factories. And this morning, we go to Wyoming, a state that is often up when the rest of the country is down. We're going to Elsa Partan. She's reporter from Wyoming Public Radio in Laramie. And okay, Elsa, everybody else is down. Are you up?
ELSA PARTAN: Wyoming is way up. Wyoming is making a lot of money on coal and oil and natural gas, but natural gas has really been the biggest money-maker in the last couple of years. It's boosted the whole state, but especially the towns that are really close to the energy fields, like a town called Kemmerer, which is one of the places I've been reporting.
INSKEEP: Well, what did you find there?
PARTAN: Kemmerer is a town of 3,000 people. It's in southwest Wyoming. It used to be a big coal town. Now, natural gas has really taken off.
Downtown, there's a shoe and clothing store, and it's called Sawaya's. They sell Carhartt work clothes and work boots. It's a good example of a place that's really benefited from the boom. The owner's name is Mary Sawaya, and she told me business has improved by 50 percent since the boom started about five years ago.
Ms. MARY SAWAYA (Retail Store Owner, Kemmerer, Wyoming): About 10 years ago, it was in a slump. And then when Williams Field built their second plant and Enterprise came in and all this oil and gas cycling came through, our business went way up.
INSKEEP: When she talks about the Williams Field or the Enterprise Field, are we talking about if you drive out of this town in any direction, you see oil derricks?
PARTAN: What you see is these columns, which are container units that help process the natural gas. and there are actually hundreds of them across - along the roads, just all the way down the road from Kemmerer, south. And all that work in the energy industry means job growth in Wyoming has been the strongest in the nation in the last few months. But there's a cloud hanging over all this job growth, and that's a lack of workers.
For example, hotels and restaurants are really struggling to find staff, and that's the problem at a Hampton Inn. It opened a couple of months ago in Rawlins, Wyoming. That's another energy town.
The acting manager of the Hampton Inn is named Jordon Estes(ph), and he told me he just can't compete with the high wages in the oil and gas industries.
Mr. JORDON ESTES (Manager, Hampton Inn, Rawlins, Wyoming): Those that can pass a drug test are working out at the refinery, and those that can't get a job in a hotel, I guess.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Must be a popular hotel for a certain kind of clientele.
PARTAN: I think he's really frustrated. As I walked into this hotel, one of the workers was saying I'm sorry, I won't be late again tomorrow.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PARTAN: There are even some fast-food places that have to close after dinnertime because they just don't have the workers to stay open, and owners just work really long hours to fill in for the folks who don't show up.
INSKEEP: We're talking with reporter Elsa Partan. She's taking us on a tour of Wyoming, where the economy appears to be up, although I have to ask aren't energy and food prices also up for those people grabbing some of those jobs in Wyoming?
PARTAN: Inflation is really high here. Nationally, inflation is about, what, five percent? Here, more than eight percent in these parts of Wyoming with oil and gas development. And that's what's happening in an energy town called Rock Springs, which is about 100 miles west of Rawlins, where we just were at the hotel.
I met a shift manager at the Arby's there who's having trouble paying for food. Her name is Annetta Richards(ph), and here's what she said about inflation.
Mr. ANNETTA RICHARDS (Shift Manager, Arby's, Rock Springs, Wyoming): I mean, groceries went from $250 up to $350 now. So I pay an extra hundred bucks every two weeks for groceries for the same stuff I always buy. We're barely making it. So…
PARTAN: So Annetta Richards says her family's really struggling, even though her husband just got a raise working on an oil rig.
Ms. RICHARDS: He makes good money now, but it still ain't enough. And we both work, and we only have two kids, and I don't see how people with the bigger families even do it.
INSKEEP: Okay, so ordinary people seem to be having a tough time keeping up with inflation, but it seems like the government's doing pretty well: a $571 million budget surplus.
PARTAN: The state's doing really great. Folks like to complain here, just like anywhere else. But a couple of Wyoming economists told me that high energy prices really have been great for the government but hard on people because of that inflation. But still, there's a ton to be happy about.
The state's been able to eliminate a tax on food. There's still no income tax in Wyoming, and there's been a lot of money for the university.
Get this: If a Wyoming kid can squeak through high school with a 2.5 GPA, she can get about half her tuition and fees paid for college here. The University of Wyoming is already one of the cheapest public colleges in the country.
INSKEEP: That's reporter Elsa Partan in Laramie, Wyoming, and that's our latest spot we visited on The Money Map. It's a series on MORNING EDITION that gives us snapshots of how the economy looks in different parts of the country.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And you can hear other Money Map stories at npr.org.