Prepare yourself when you turn that corner, a friend warned me last January as we neared Dubois on our return from the holidays.
Her words didn’t do much to dampen the shock. On the main street, it looked as if someone had neglected to remove a ghastly and elaborate Halloween display. Beyond the safety barricades, you couldn’t miss the sagging and crumbling black beams, the broken and charred window frames.
As many across the nation heard on the news last December 31, a huge fire had broken out in the center of Dubois the previous evening. It burned on into the wee hours. While volunteers tried to battle the flames, water kept freezing inside the hoses.
“I am certain that this most remote and greatest little town in the lower 48 will turn this disaster into a new start of something even better,” I wrote on Facebook. “The community spirit there is beyond describing. Just watch what will rise from these ashes!”
I’m no prophet. But I know our town.
All this year, the view out the front window of the Rustic Pine Tavern has looked all wrong, empty and gaping, as if the hardware store parking lot was trespassing southward. What’s going to materialize there? I wondered, and so did everyone else.
One day in the spring, I saw the property owner Jeff Sussman huddled in a corner at the Rustic with realtor Leon Sanderson. But we didn’t hear any public news, other than a promise that the site would be redeveloped.
As soon as humanly possible (given the time needed for insurance investigations, demolition, planning approval, construction contracts, and un-freezing of the ground), construction will commence on this:
Last summer, Mayor Twila Blakeman told me that Jeff had raised the issue of holding a town meeting about the project. She recalled telling him, “Everyone liked what you did with the rest of the buildings [in that block]. Just do what you think best.”
Jeff recalls the conversation differently. He says Twila told him to go the usual route, via the planning commission (which no doubt she also did, and he proceeded to do).
“No one in the town has been anything but positive,” he said. “Everyone wanted it to be sort of Western, but when you asked someone what do you mean: Western 1905? Western 1940? … We understood what we wanted to do.”
But this isn’t the Wild West. Anyone who says it’s wide open and you can do whatever you want to do, he hastened to add, is talking “nonsense.”
A Carl Hiaasen or God forbid Annie Proulx would have a high time with the Sussman character: A high-profile New York commercial real-estate developer who moved to Dubois to set up a cattle ranch and bought up the best property downtown. But I see him more in a Wallace Stegner novel: A man from the East captivated by and ultimately committed to the West.
Jeff and his wife, the painter Susan Sussman, found Dubois almost by accident. They were looking in Montana, but ended up dividing the Rocking Chair ranch property in Dubois with another couple who wanted only a small part of the land for a guest ranch.
Their part became the Diamond D Cattle company, which two years ago won the distinction “Landowners of the Year” from Wyoming Game & Fish for its innovative wildlife conservation efforts, largely implemented by manager Reg Phillips, in dealing with threats from wolves and bears.
“It was a great leap of faith, and we just fell in love with the place,” Jeff told me. “It was an amazing learning experience, and I’m glad we did it.” He said they were especially fortunate to have found Reg and Aline Phillips, who had been with the ranch before and made the learning experience “terrific”.
These are no absentee landlords. When they’re in town, they’re visibly in town, and they have plenty of friends. I first met Jeff when he and Susan sponsored an open bar at the Rustic on his birthday several years ago.
So what will become of the empty lot? It’s described as a mix of retail and offices. “It’s 3 buildings, but from its appearance, you’ll think 5,” Jeff said. “We used altered facades and materials. We didn’t want people to just think ‘mall’.”
Jeff foresees an array of craftspeople in his shops: Saddlemakers, jewelry designers, people who make buckles, hats, and boots. “If we can get known as a place where there are lots of craftsmen, that would be great,” he said.
Reg Phillips, who is managing the construction effort, is energized by the potential to attract office tenants who will capitalize on one of the town’s best assets: Its status as a poster child for excellent Internet access in a remote area.
The plans will be out to bid next month or February latest, and ground will be broken in the spring, as soon as Nature allows.
“I’m not going to wait for tenants,” Jeff told me yesterday. “We’re going to build.”
© Lois Wingerson, 2015
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