The lights are on, and everybody's home

Craig Station Power Plant workers have filled hotels, motels in the area

Vacancy?

Not likely.

With more than 500 workers here for the Craig Station Power Plant's environmental retrofit and outage project, it's getting hard to find a place to stay.

Hotel and motel owners and managers are reporting 98 percent to 100 percent occupancy of the area's 470 available rooms, and they expect to maintain that level until the project's completion at the end of April.

That's good news considering April is generally the slowest month of the year for hotel/motel occupancy.

"It's been great for the industry because winter is a slow time, and this project really picked us up," said Trena Everding, manager of Super 8 Motel.

The timing was perfect, Holiday Inn General Manager Mike Durner said, after two months in which the hotel fell short of revenue projections -- albeit aggressive revenue projections.

Durner said occupancy is at twice the rate it was at this time last year.

"This is definitely good for the local economy," he said.

Everding said all of Super 8's 61 rooms were booked Tuesday with about 75 percent of the lodgers staying in Craig for the construction project.

Room availability changes almost minute to minute as some jobs are completed earlier than expected and others don't finish on time. Occupants end their stay early or ask to extend it. In that case, they've had to be shuffled to other hotels for a night or two because a room wasn't available.

"We try to keep them here and in one room so they're not bouncing around," Everding said.

The surge in business has enhanced the spirit of cooperation as hotel employees work to find guests lodging options.

The outage -- routine maintenance on Unit 2-- is expected to last through the end of April. The environmental retrofit -- part of a settlement of a lawsuit in which the Sierra Club alleged the power plant violated opacity limits for visible particulates -- will end in 2005.

About 415 workers are on site for the retrofit and another 150 for the outage, according to Plant Manager Dana Gregory.

But, that number also changes daily as some projects are completed and others are started.

"It's a very dynamic thing with numbers changing daily," Gregory said.

Those numbers also will decrease as the project progresses, he said.

Most hotels are booked until May.

"For Craig, this is a very good thing," said Maria Janiga, owner of the Black Nugget Motel. Its 20 rooms are full, nearly 100 percent with construction workers. "Everybody is benefiting, no doubt."

Jody Holland, owner of Affordable Inns, said the motel has twice as many rooms rented now as it did at this time last year.

"Unfortunately, it's only a temporary fix," she said. "We're crossing our fingers for an all-around good season because the motels here deserve it. The market here has been so depressed for four or five years."

She said five to seven of her 22 rooms have a daily guest turnover, with the rest being rented for long-term living.

Most hotel owners report that problems have been minimal.

Super 8 has made two calls to 911 because of lodgers -- one a domestic dispute and another a man who was passed out drunk in the hallway.

There has also been some damage to rooms and some lodgers pack their lunch using the free continental breakfasts provided by some hotels.

"Some people don't seem to respect anything, but for the most part, we've had no problems," said Ken James, manager of the Craig Motel.

In most cases, power plant workers have been a welcome addition to hotels' client rosters.

"We do get the ones who put all their towels into piles and make their own beds," Everding said. "We had one guest who stayed for six months and still writes and lets us know how he's doing. He made friends here and we made friends with him. It was kind of nice."

Holland said her experience has been similar.

"This has been one of the most well-mannered and respectable groups of workers I've ever seen," she said. "On the whole, I am so grateful for their business."

With hotel rooms at a premium, some are taking the less traveled path and looking to campgrounds, trailer lots and bed and breakfasts as alternatives.

The 8-room Taylor Street Bed & Breakfast was 100 percent full until Tuesday when one guest -- who stayed a year while working at the power plant -- checked out.

"With the hotels full, we're getting the overflow," owner Diana Cook said. "Usually construction workers don't think of a bed and breakfast."

That's unfortunate, she said, because long-term occupants often feel more at home at a bed and breakfast, where they have access to a kitchen, dining room and living room.

"It's like an apartment for them," Cooke said. "People come in and see what it's like and they say 'wow.'"

Other workers are choosing to bring in their own recreational vehicles and campers.

Jesse Aragon, a host at KOA Campground estimates 10 to 15 sites are being rented by power plant construction workers.

About five of the sites at Lamplighter Estates, which also has RV and camper lots available for rent, are being used by people affiliated with the power plant, according to manager Laurie Benedict.

The downside is there's little room for seasonal or short-term visitors.

Durner said the 152 room Holiday Inn had difficulty accommodating youth group activities because of long-term bookings.

"We had to do a lot of shuffling to get them in," he said. "It was difficult to get the kids taken care of and find room for outage workers."

Craig Chamber of Commerce Director Cathy Vanatta said that while the project is an economic boon, it's also short term and makes it difficult to bring conventions to Craig when you can't provide attendees with a place to stay.

"I've been telling people who are coming here for Grand Olde West Days that if they don't have a room yet, they should get one fast or there won't be one available," she said.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.