HULETT — Small towns across America are struggling, but in this tiny Wyoming town of about 300 people, something interesting is happening.
There’s a new building going up on Main Street, the first to appear in something like 40 years, while, down the street, a young family has moved into the area from Arizona and is changing up the Hulett Hardware Store.
Tom Coronato is the man behind the new building on Main Street. It’s a long-term play, he said, one that he’s not certain will bring a return on investment in his lifetime, but it’s something he believes this community needs so it can grow.
“Like I could take a bloodbath and die here,” he said. “Just lose all my money. But the idea really was to build it because we think there’s a need.”
Hulett is ideally positioned, he believes, to attract tourists going to see Devils Tower. But for that shift in traffic patterns to happen, he believes the town’s Main Street needs to have more to offer.
“If you look at us during Sturgis, we have tents, tents, tents,” he says, pointing at the white pop-ups that are selling Sturgis Motorcycle Rally T-shirts, memorabilia, or offering to sew patches onto jackets.
Coronato is quick to acknowledge it’s a smart business play on the vendors’ part, buying space to place Sturgis popups instead of paying a large sum in rent for a two-week to month-long span. But he also feels their presence is throttling the town’s Main Street economy. The particular lot that Coronato purchased for his new building on Main Street was once owned by someone from Florida. It sat vacant for most of the year.
“He just used it for 14 days out of the year,” Coronato said. “So that was impeding the growth of my community. That one on the far end was owned by someone in West Virginia. It’s taken us 20, 25 years to get our lots back so now we can grow again.”
How To Keep A Hardware Store Running
Down the street from Coronato’s new building in progress, a young family is also working to change up the town’s hardware store, to keep it going.
Kacy and Jake Barlow bought the hardware store a couple of years ago, just after the pandemic. They had been looking for a better place to raise their children, and Jake wanted the perfect “cowboy town.”
They looked at the possibilities while vacationing in places like South Dakota, Idaho, and Wyoming.
A chance encounter led the couple to the Hulett Hardware Store. Kacy can’t even remember the details ofwhat exactly brought them there, but
“This is my husband’s dream,” she said. “You know ranching, cows, horses, and like (Hulett) is the perfect little cowboy town. You’ve got the tower, the roads to —I understand what brings all the bikers to this area. You drive through here this time of year and it’s like a magical place. It’s beautiful. It’s green and you have those dark pines and the Black Hills.
“Everything about it’s perfect. The winter’s not perfect, but we can make it through those.”
Like Coronato, the bet that the Barlows have placed on Hulett and their new hardware store isn’t really about making lots of money. It’s building the community that they love.
“We figured if we’re coming into town, we want to provide something of service to the town,” Kacy said. “And, small towns, if you can get entrepreneurs into the town, and give something that the town needs, then it’s just going to bless people. We were blessed in Moab, so we can, you know, pay it forward here.”
Last month, the couple added a little coffee and ice cream shop to the back area, along with games for family fun nights. That was after some reflection about what their own children were looking for, as well as a search for a new revenue stream to support the hardware store that the town needs.
“We realized, moving here with our teenagers, there’s not really much after the kids get out of school,” Kacy Barlow told Cowboy State Daily. “We have several bars, but there’s not really anything for the kids to do. So that’s what we’re trying to provide.”
A Box Can Become Something Cool
Coronato doesn’t know exactly what will wind up in the new building he’s constructing.
It’s not that he hasn’t thought that far ahead, or is failing to plan. As he sees it, small towns like Hulett have a chicken-egg problem that needs an unconventional approach.
“I sit on economic boards and committees and chat with some of the people that develop stuff,” he said. “They want a net operating return in like three years. That’s an impossible task to do here.”
That investment culture is one of the reasons small towns like Hulett are struggling to attract investment, despite having, in many cases, strong demand for particular services. The profit margin just isn’t big enough, Coronato said. Opportunities are better elsewhere.
“Something like this, I may never make money, but the thing is, it’s here, and it’ll always be here,” Coronato said. “Maybe my kids will make money. But the other thing is, it’s my personal investment into the community.”
Tough To Make Ends Meet
While the hardware store is something that particularly benefits Hulett and the surrounding community, the Barlows are finding it hard to break even.
“There’s times when we go to our supplier and their cost wholesale to us is the same that you could go to Home Depot and get it for,” Kacy Barlow said.
Given that, she has occasionally bought things at Home Depot to stick on her shelves for resale.
“It is (funky economics),” she agreed. “But it works, and at least we can keep it open for the town. There’s definitely a need for a lot of the ranchers and stuff around here.”
Barlow hopes that as people discover the new coffee shop, it can become part of a new revenue stream that keeps the hardware store going.
She’s also shifting the merchandise at the store. While there will still be hardware items that people need, she wants to add other items with broader appeal, a kind of general store concept.
And she’s thinking about a thrift store area.
“The community, I think, could really benefit from that very affordable, you know resale items,” she said. “We don’t know yet on that one, but just any way that we can help, because there’s a lot of people in this community who are more limited on income. And for a hardware store like this, we can’t get things for a really low price. So, we do a lot of brainstorming on how can we help the store to bless the community.”
Main Street Economics Are Tough Too
Coronato plans to keep the cost low for a business to rent space in his building, especially in the beginning. He hopes he can help move a couple of the Hulett’s home-based businesses to Main Street.
“There are a lot of businesses here that are run out of people’s homes,” he said. “But that’s not really the best way to grow a business. It’s a hobby, not a business. You know, no tourist is going through and stopping like at someone’s house or something.”
Coronato plans three units in the downstairs area that Hulett businesses can occupy. So far, one of the three spaces is spoken for, by a bank processing service.
Upstairs, Coronato plans an Air B&B as well as his own residence. He is engineering the space so he is in a detached area. That way everyone has privacy.
The Air B&B, he hopes, will help underwrite the operation below, keeping it solvent, particularly in the beginning.
The Air B&B space is aimed at golfers, who he feels are underserved in the area. The 18-hole Golf Club at Devils Tower in Hulett has an amazing view of the nation’s first national monument. The 150-acre Par 72 course was designed by Phelps Atkinson Golf Design. It has a USGA rating of 73.8 with a slope of 142, making it a challenging, fun course.
“I’ll have a pool table in the main floor and wet bar, so that, you know, golfers, either with their spouse or friends have, like (my brother) Bob says, a fraternity house,” Coronato said. “The whole idea really is to make it kind of like a man cave on Main Street.”
A Community Field Of Dreams
Many people in town have noticed the building going up on Main Street, and they ask Coronato all the time what he plans to put in the space.
But he feels they’re asking the wrong question.
It’s more about what the community could put in the space.
“People think automatically I want to put something in there, but I don’t,” he said.
What he really wants is just to see the community he calls home grow a little, instead of continuing a slow decline in population. Businesses on Main Street are part of what he believes can help that happen.
“When you have someone pay $1.2 million (for a house) what does that person want (in their community)?” Coronato said. “They want something that they can shop in, where they don’t have to drive to Spearfish. They’d like something year-round.
“I don’t care if this is open year-round or not, but let’s just get something open even half a year. That would be nice.”
Without buildings, though, it’s impossible to create the upward spiral that he believes will help attract people and tourists to the community.
“You’ve got to start with the physical plant of a building,” he said.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.