GILLETTE — Of all the multi-million dollar facilities at Cam-plex, ones costing about $600 have generated the most interest recently.
Cam-plex officials have started the mammoth task of making 55,000 people from 100 countries feel at home for two weeks in 2024 when Gillette hosts the International Pathfinders Camporee. Cam-plex’s ability to attract the huge event can be attributed in no small part to the immense facilities that past community leaders have seen fit to build.
But if those before them have moved forward under the idea that “if you build it, they will come,” those now in charge have realized that if they come, they will have to have a place to go.
Hence the fact that among the headaches officials were trying to resolve this week was one that costs about $350,000.
For 600 port-a-potties.
Building a city at Cam-plex
There are many details that have yet to be nailed down for the Camporee, which won’t take place until Aug. 5-11, 2024, but the planning process is well underway.
When it arrives, it will be the largest event Gillette has hosted. Camporee will essentially build a city at Cam-plex, with its own newspaper, radio station, food vendors and shops.
Other amenities that those who live in a city take for granted — like trash removal, transportation, water and waste disposal — still need to be figured out.
The lowly port-a-potty was one of those.
Cam-plex had budgeted $350,000 for RV park improvements for the event because so many of those attending will be camping on Cam-plex grounds. But after talking with Camporee representatives, “There’s a sense of urgency that we begin to sort out this detail, because without them this event simply can’t happen,” said Jeff Esposito, Cam-plex general manager.
At a county directors meeting this week, Esposito asked Campbell County commissioners if he could use $350,000, which had already been budgeted, to buy portable restrooms to rent out to the Camporee.
He hopes the $350,000 will pay for 600 port-a-potties, but he won’t know until the bids come in.
They’re meant to supplement, not replace, the local inventory of portable restrooms, Esposito said, and all of the sanitation and waste disposal companies in town will be needed.
It is one example of the immense amount of planning that will be required over the next three years before the Camporee arrives.
“Everything from constructing an amphitheater to counting up the right number of tables and chairs,” said Ron Whitehead, director of the Camporee.
The International Pathfinder Camporee is a youth outreach event put on by Seventh-day Adventist churches every five years. Participants earn merit badges, learn outdoor skills, go camping, learn Bible knowledge and are involved in community service projects.
In January, it was announced that the event would be held in Gillette. It had been in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, since 1999.
During the event, there will be more people in Gillette than ever before. Whitehead said 45,000 people will arrive on the first day, which is a Monday, and the rest will come Tuesday. Then 80% of them will leave Saturday, and the remaining 20 percent will leave Sunday.
During the event, Campbell County’s population will double, making it the largest city in Wyoming for that week.
If you build it, they will come. And when they are going to come, it means you have some work to do, whether it’s mowing down a cornfield in “The Field of Dreams” or leveling some acreage at Cam-plex for future events.
Work still to do
The event will require changes to infrastructure at Cam-plex, including constructing an amphitheater where the Camporee will have its nightly gatherings.
There also are plans to level the ground on Cam-plex property along Highway 51 from South Garner Lake Road to Fox Park Road. It would be used for parking — not just for the Camporee, but any other large events that come to town in the future.
Esposito said he anticipates having to set up shower tents around Cam-plex, although Camporee has not asked for those yet.
He is quick to clarify that it’s not like Camporee is coming to Cam-plex with a list of demands. Esposito said the Camporee will contribute toward these projects.
“They only want us to do what would work for them as well as other existing or prospective customers,” Esposito said.
For example, having the amphitheater would allow Gillette to pursue large concerts, music festivals and other big events that it otherwise wouldn’t be able to attract. And Cam-plex having several hundred portable restrooms available would only help its cause.
The Camporee folks have been “absolutely terrific to work with in every regard,” Esposito said.
‘Treat it like it’s Sturgis’
Cam-plex and Campbell County have been through this before, but not in at such a large scale.
When it attracted the National High School Finals Rodeo in 1991, it did so with the guarantee that it would provide a list of amenities, not the least of which was camping facilities and horse stalls. With the help of the city, county and volunteers, it was ready to welcome the 10,000 or so people the first year of the rodeo in 1993.
The Camporee is at least five times the size, which may be hard for many Gillette residents to comprehend until they hear the advice that officials will be constantly giving until that date in 2024: Plan on buying your groceries in advance of those August dates, because with an extra 50,000 people in town, you might be surprised about what you can’t find on the grocery shelves. It could make the run on toilet paper during the pandemic look mild.
“You’ll be happy when we come, and you’ll also be a bit happy when we go,” Whitehead said.
“Treat it just like Sturgis is coming to your town,” said Jessica Seders, executive director of the Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“If anyone has an RV to rent, they’re going to want to rent it. Hotel rooms will be full. Everything is going to be utilized,” Esposito said.
“You can rent whatever you have to house people out here,” Whitehead said.
It’s not just an opportunity for Gillette, but for the whole state of Wyoming. Many of the visitors, especially the ones from other countries, will come early to do some sight-seeing, Whitehead said.
Seders is putting together a community planning group to prepare, much like what happened in 2017 with the total solar eclipse. The main difference between the two events is there’s a pretty good idea of how many people will be coming to the Camporee.
“It’s going to take lots of us working together in the community to help this be a successful event,” she said.
Don’t be surprised if the advice of buying groceries before the Camporee comes to town is repeated hundreds of times between now and 2024. Based on past Camporees, Whitehead said it’s important to get that message out as much as possible.
“What we found is, we didn’t remind them enough to get their groceries ahead of time,” Whitehead said.
How we got here
Whitehead was in Gillette earlier this month to meet with community organizations and local businesses.
As one would expect, moving a 50,000-person event 900 miles across the country is quite the undertaking.
“It’s much easier to go back to where you were, but we just felt pressed to be here,” Whitehead said.
The last time the Camporee moved locations, it was much smaller. In 1994, the Camporee was held near the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado. That year, there were about 12,200 people.
In 1999, the event moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and it hosted 22,000 people. Since then, it’s grown to 32,000, then 42,000, and then more than 50,000. In 2019, there were 55,000 people. That year, the event had a $25 million economic impact.
In the fall of 2020, Vern Byrd visited Gillette as a potential location for the International Pathfinders Camporee, and he was impressed. Whitehead said it seemed too good to be true, so he visited Campbell County to see for himself.
His impression, he said, “was even stronger.”
It would have been much easier to not move. Whitehead compared it to a golfer playing the same course time after time.
“After a while, they’re tired of going to that same course over and over, they want a new course, a new challenge. And we just felt pressed that this was the right venue,” he said.
It wasn’t just Cam-plex that impressed Whitehead, but the Recreation Center, the Energy Capital Sports Complex, Gillette College, Area 59, the parks systems, the hospital and the restaurants as well.
“This community is very blessed,” Whitehead said.
It was similar to the reaction of the National High School Finals Rodeo crowd after being in Gillette. The community has built for itself things that also attracts others.
“It was the whole package that tied it together for them,” Esposito said.
After a unanimous vote in support of the move by a small group of people, Whitehead took it to the Camporee’s executive advisory board, made up of more than 50 people from all over the world. He believed he couldn’t justify the move unless at least 70 percent of them supported it.
The vote ended up being 100-percent in favor of moving to Gillette.
Now, it’s up to Gillette to deliver a world-class event, Esposito said.
“They’ve made a huge commitment to some place they’ve never been to,” Seders said. “We want to show them how much we appreciate their confidence.”
Seders said she’s been in daily contact with Camporee representatives, and whenever they come to town she has them meet with different community leaders and organizations.
When Whitehead was in town this month, he worked with Seders to film videos with several local business owners, like the Ice Cream Café, to promote the community to the organization’s members, many of whom might not have even heard of Wyoming.
“We need to help them understand and introduce Campbell County to their organization,” Seders said.
Building a community
Between now and 2024, people from the Camporee will be in Gillette to check it out before the main event.
Camporee representatives will be at Cam-plex for the county fair this summer, as well as in 2022 and 2023 during the National High School Finals Rodeo. There will be groups here in August and September to get tours of Cam-plex. And there also will be some “spin-off events” as well, Seders said. The Camporee is divided into unions, or districts, and each union will have its own meeting every few years. Seders said two of these unions are looking at moving their meetings to Gillette ahead of 2024.
“They are very invested in the community,” Esposito said. “This is really going to be a second home for a lot of people.”
Community service is a big part of the Camporee, and Whitehead said the size of the event can possibly be used as leverage to get funding or supplies.
Esposito said that stood out to him when they were asking questions about Campbell County.
“The type of questions they had are sort of like, are there enough community service projects for all these people to do? They wanted to make sure they could do enough for us,” Esposito said. “This is a group of 55,000 that is dedicated to making the community better.”
“Dream big, there’s no project too big or too small,” Seders said. “Whatever you think would be helpful, bring them forward.”
When they leave, a lot of food and camping supplies will be left over by international travelers who don’t want to deal with taking those things on the plane ride home.
“If you have a nonprofit that could use the resources, we’re happy to connect,” Whitehead said.
When it’s all said and done, the vision of local government and Cam-plex officials over the years will have made this possible, Esposito said. It’s still going to be a lot of work, but the foundation is set.
“We’re positioned well to build out a little bit for this event,” Esposito said. “There’s so much investment done here over the years, we’re not starting from scratch. We’re pretty far ahead.”
The bottom line is the community will be further ahead, and about 600 port-a-potties richer.