CODY — A new billboard on the north side of US 14-16-20 East has exposed political and ideological tension among Cody residents and those taking an interest in the city.
The billboard reads, “Don’t California Our Cody,” and displays a Blackwater Worldwide logo underneath.
The company started as a private military contractor founded by Erik Prince, who owns property in Wapiti. He did not respond to a request for comment about the billboard’s intended message.
The ambiguity regarding the billboard’s meaning has been the source of heated debate and discourse on social media, shining a light onto local political divisiveness and fears of a changing city.
“It doesn’t matter the intent, it is how many people have viewed the words, and that is, we don’t like you if you are from California,” said Rae Garrett, had commented on social media after an image of the billboard was posted. “But to intentionally degrade an entire state, that is not mindful or respectful to hundreds of thousands of potential customers or consumers.”
Garrett grew up in Cody but now lives in northern Colorado.
Local resident Tim Lasseter said although he would not put up a billboard like that himself, he does agree with its sentiment.
“I don’t want to say don’t move here because you’re a Democrat,” he said. “But don’t come to Cody to change Cody. Embrace Cody.”
The worry of Californians bringing change is nothing new.
Ann White, owner of White Ink Printing in Powell, has been selling stickers to the billboard at her store that read, “Don’t California my Wyoming.”
“We’ve sold quite a few,” she said.
Lasseter and others have said they believe the billboard is making a reference to laws made in Democratic-controlled state and city governments, like in California, Denver and Portland.
“Liberal policies have trashed other cities,” LC Timbs said. “The crime rate, tax rate of those cities has skyrocketed.”
One of the biggest critiques of the billboard is by some who consider it antithesis to the “Live and Let Live” ethos Wyomingites often espouse.
“Everyone has different views on life, how they wish to live it, and how they want things to progress or not progress,” said Garrett. “That is the organic makeup of every town, USA. That is called living in a human world.”
Timbs, a retired deputy sheriff, said he is frustrated with the level of divisiveness he has seen on social media initiated by “keyboard warriors” discussing political topics like these.
“If you can’t debate without being insulting, you shouldn’t be doing it all,” he said.
Although he hasn’t encountered any pointed discourse in-person, he said the left-leaning sentiments he has seen expressed on the internet have concerned him nonetheless.
Lasseter and Timbs both said Democrats are welcome in Park County, but both added that, those with this type of ideology should assimilate to Wyoming’s historically conservative culture rather than try and alter it to their preference.
“Don’t bring big city problems to small town Cody,” Timbs said.
Lifelong Cody resident Ronald Spomer has a different perspective on the heart of the matter and what the billboard means, seeing it as a rejection of big city culture. He said he has seen Cody become over-commercialized in his lifetime, with major corporations like Walmart and Starbucks putting down roots and more restrictive laws infiltrating the community, pushed by what he sees as an unquenchable thirst for constant change.
“If you don’t learn from the past, we keep making the same mistakes,” he said. “We’ve kind of lost the flavor of who we are.”
Threats to way of life
Garrett said she finds validity in Spomer’s perspective and said her current hometown has been hurt by the same problems he addresses.
“It went from a small town to a city, changing many things with unregulated and irresponsible growth,” she said. “But it doesn’t have to do with the people moving here, it has all to do with the politics, the laws, the real estate developers… . It is the regulations or lack of regulations the city officials, council, boards and commissions and so forth create. It is the lack of people becoming involved who are complaining or not voting or speaking out when issues like this arise.”
Although there has been a noticeable recent influx of newcomers to Cody, Spomer said he has seen this trend developing since the 1980s.
“A lot of them are just trying to run away from taxes,” he said.
Lasseter said he was surprised to find Wyoming was not as conservative as he expected when moving here about five years ago. In response to seeing people he did not view as true conservatives elected to local city councils and school boards, he decided to run in the last two school board elections.
By putting himself so prominently in the public’s eye, he said he has fallen victim to a number of insults, called names like “Nazi” for his desire to “fiercely stand up” for his beliefs.
“It’s so easy to try and link people into groups to try and win an argument,” he said. “If you believe in conservative principles it doesn’t make you a racist.”
When the billboard image was posted on Cody Area Classifieds, it led to hundreds of comments on both sides of the issue.
“This billboard helps to fuel hatred and divisiveness intended or not, something one can see on social media,” Garret said. “This statement has been used since I was born in Cody and was still being used when I left after high school.”
Some of the people who have spoken up most about the worries of Californians and others moving in and changing the character of the place are more recent arrivals themselves.
Prince only lives in the area part time, and Lasseter is still relatively new to town.
From Lasseter’s perspective, newcomers like him have seen how the changes to a city start. He said recent changes in Cody remind him of the shifts taking place in his former home of Branson, Mo., about 20 years ago. Lasseter said a boom in the tourism industry there brought an influx of new residents and corresponding growth in unemployment and drug use.
“I don’t want Cody to turn into what I left,” he said.