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August 30, 2012 8:12 am

Computer program leads family to Powell

Written by Dante Geoffrey

Rick LaPlante guides cattle down to another pen as he sorts them for sale. Rick and his wife Judith have transitioned from life as Microsoft employees in Seattle to Heart Mountain ranchers. Rick LaPlante guides cattle down to another pen as he sorts them for sale. Rick and his wife Judith have transitioned from life as Microsoft employees in Seattle to Heart Mountain ranchers. Tribune photo by Dante Geoffrey

‘In data we trust’

When Rick and Judith LaPlante moved to Powell from Seattle in the summer of 2007, they, unlike many big-city transplants, knew exactly what they were getting into.

In an attempt to escape the rat race of city life, the LaPlantes had decided they wanted to move to a small town.

But not any small town would do.

With then 12-year-old daughter Emily nearing her high school years, Rick and Judith began searching for the town that best served their very specific needs.

The first step was deciding they wanted to live in a rural area. From there, things got much more complicated.

Rick and Judith read a book about the best small towns in America, but rather than taking the book’s word for it, they decided to delve deeper.

“Their answers are interesting, but more interesting was their methodology for coming up with them,” Rick said.

Rick and Judith looked at the criteria the book’s authors used to judge the towns and applied some of that to their own search.

As former Microsoft employees, Rick and Judith were able to utilize their technological know-how to narrow in on the cities that best matched their desired criteria.

Microsoft’s MapPoint software, which Judith helped develop, allowed the LaPlantes to input the specifications of their dream town and see which U.S. cities were the best match.

Given the LaPlante’s demands, finding a rural utopian oasis was no easy task.

The LaPlantes said they would not move to a town that was within 75 miles of a major metropolitan area. This would ensure they avoid not only the big city life, but the outlying suburbs as well.

The LaPlantes wanted to be able to make a positive impact in their new city and decided a town of less than 15,000 people would be most conducive.

Maybe most importantly, they were looking for great schools.

“We’re moving for Emily,” Rick said. “The public school system has to be outstanding.”

Outstanding might be an understatement. The LaPlantes were looking for a town with schools that rank in the top 5 percent in test scores of its respective state.

“Immediately, 95 percent of the school districts, regardless if they were big or small, were out,” Rick said.

Besides great public schools, the LaPlantes also were looking for a town near a college. Not necessarily for Emily to one day attend, but for the ancillary benefits a college provides to its town.

“Some of the knocks on little towns is they can be very homogenous in the way that they think,” Rick said. “Having a college provides diversity, and it provides cultural opportunities with the things they bring through there.”

With all of the data input into MapPoint, the LaPlantes hit a button that was going to direct one of the most major decisions of their lives.

The search returned 11 results, including Durango, Colo., Sheridan, Laramie and Powell.

The LaPlantes visited a few of the towns, eventually whittling their list down to Durango and Powell.

Durango was the LaPlantes’ likely destination until they subscribed to both towns’ respective newspapers as a way of peering into the communities.

“Durango, at the beginning, was at the top of our list,” Rick said. “(But) every article in the paper was ‘the new people are ruining the town.’”

And he said Durango’s lack of acceptance wasn’t even subtle.

“Sometimes it was clearly, overtly, ‘the new people suck,’” he said.

A trip to Durango pushed the LaPlantes closer to Powell. When they saw a brand new Starbucks and Cold Stone Creamery they knew Durango wasn’t the small town they wanted.

So Powell, with its 6,000 people, excellent education system, Northwest College and 500 miles between it and Denver was the clear winner.

The LaPlantes said they had spent only five or six nights in Powell when they decided to make it home.

“It was a total leap of faith,” Rick said. “We piled up all of our belongings. (We) sold everything — our house, the cabin in the mountains — and said ‘OK, in data we trust.’”

Emily, now a 17-year-old  senior year at Powell High School, said moving to Wyoming from Seattle was a bit of a shock.

“I didn’t know where we were living,” she said. “I’d never been here before.”

Rick, Judith and Emily moved into a modest-sized house on the ranch they had just acquired near Heart Mountain. A ranch — and lifestyle — they knew little about.

Not right away, at least.

The LaPlantes were determined to not just own a ranch, but to successfully manage the day-to-day work a ranch requires.

Rick was looking to learn the absolute basics of ranching.

“When we moved here, I did not know what you had to feed a cow to keep it alive or how long it took for it to have a baby,” Rick said.

So he spent a week in Billings attending a workshop for ranchers.

Unfortunately for Rick, the class focused on business and was not the “Ranching 101” course he had hoped for.

But he made the most of the class by befriending other ranchers in attendance. They helped Rick with the practical aspects to ranching, and Rick helped them with the business side of things.

“They appreciated being asked, and of course we appreciated getting an answer that made sense,” Rick said.

Rick took his newfound knowledge back to the ranch, where his family was ready to plow into its new western lifestyle.

“We tend not to do anything small,” Rick said. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it. We’re going to run the cattle ourselves and put up fence and move them and break the ice in winter.”

Judith shares his driven attitude.

“If you’re going to do it you’re going to do it right, and you’re going to do it well, and you’re going to learn everything you can,” Judith said.

The LaPlantes began to meet neighboring ranchers and, as questions arose, would pick their brains about everything from raising cattle to growing hay.

“We were very clear about what we didn’t know. We are here to make this work, we’re not here to change anything,” Rick said. “But we don’t know anything about even planting grass.”

The LaPlantes had next to no knowledge of managing a ranch just five years ago. Now, they have approximately 600 head of cattle, plus a few horses, on just under 1,000 acres of land.

Judith said constantly working on the ranch — they built a new house on the property — delayed her family’s assimilation to Powell.

“We were spending so much time on our own ranch we weren’t really integrating into the community,” Judith said. “So I don’t think we even started reaching out for a little while because we were trying to get our feet under us.”

Five years later, the LaPlantes are fitting in just fine.

Judith teaches technology at Powell High School, where she led the school’s robotics team to the national competition in St. Louis.

Judith had no background in teaching, but when the high school called needing a long-term substitute, she was more than willing.

After reading an article in the school newspaper about some students’ desire for a robotics program, Judith decided to add robotics to her curriculum.

Despite having no previous knowledge of robotics, Judith was able to fall back on her computer background to quickly learn and lead her students to nation-wide recognition.

“We had so much support from the community,” Judith said. “ I could not have done it by myself.”

Rick also has integrated himself into the Powell community. He is the treasurer for Northwest College’s board of trustees as well as the board chairman of the Powell Economic Partnership.

Northwest trustee Gloria Hedderman said she couldn’t tell Rick wasn’t from around here when she met him in 2008.

“He’s very down to earth,” she said. “He’s a westerner, just like all of us.”

Rick has been able to apply his Microsoft experience to his new positions in Powell. Hedderman said he brings a different perspective to the board.

“He has changed the board, and that’s good,” Hedderman said. “He’s very creative and very experienced with hiring and personnel issues and budgets.”

Despite the ranch, the college board and the economic partnership, Rick has much more time at home now than when he was working 80-hour weeks in Seattle.

This has not gone unnoticed by Emily, now 17.

“He’s definitely around more,” Emily said of her dad. “He’s more interested in everything that’s going on because he’s there.”

Much of Emily’s increased family time has come while working on the ranch.

“It’s definitely different (than life in Seattle),” Emily said. “There’s always something to be done, and yet you don’t ever really have to go very far to get anything done.”

Emily, who said she is not very social, has made friends in Powell and has kept in touch with friends back in Seattle. She has returned to the Seattle area to visit with friends, but none of her friends have made the trip to Powell yet.

“I guess they don’t really want to travel out in the middle of Wyoming,” Emily said.

But Emily said she has friends wherever she goes in town.

“It’s kind of nice to know everyone you drive by on the road and know someone everywhere you go,” she said.

Then again, that’s not always ideal.

“Sometimes knowing everyone can be a pain,” she said. “Everyone knows everything by the time you get home.”

Emily wants to continue to live in rural areas throughout her life, as does her mother.

“I have no aspirations to go back to a big city,” Judith said.

The LaPlantes appreciate the agricultural life and the people who come with it.

“We wanted some place where people worked hard and they’re sort of down to earth,” Rick said.

Rick and Judith said their number crunching paid off. They found a real Western town where the people are willing to help, Emily is enjoying the schools, and work is just a short walk out their back door.

Too bad their software didn’t mention anything about a rancher’s wake up call.

“That’s the one thing I dislike about ranching — the early morning hours,” Rick said.

3 comments

  • Comment Link August 31, 2012 6:46 am posted by TN

    Darned if I couldn't find a better place than Powell,

  • Comment Link September 04, 2012 5:57 pm posted by Steve Moseley

    Thoroughly enjoyed this story, largely for the similarities between the leap of faith these folks and us all took when we chose Powell and just showed up as strangers. It's easy to be a mindless whiner, but at least I finally agree with this invisible Powell "booster' about one thing...we "couldn't find a better place than Powell," either. Still haven't.

  • Comment Link September 20, 2012 11:12 am posted by Ann Arnold

    I loved reading this story. My daughter
    and her family are moving to Powell next
    week. My Son-in-law is going to work for
    Summitt ESP. It was great hearing about
    the school system. I have a six year old
    granddaughter that will be in first grade,she has a three year old brother.
    I will miss them very much, but it was great reading about Powell. It helps to know that Powell is a great place to live. Take good care of them

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