Let me tell you about an old teeter-totter adage believed by a great many Wyoming leaders. In this theory, it’s believed the Wyoming economy operates in the opposite way of the national USA economy.
It goes like this: When the country is struggling, Wyoming is thriving. When Wyoming struggles, the country thrives.
It is like opposite sides of a coin. Right now, we are in a “tails” phase.
Today while the USA economy is as hot as it has ever been, Wyoming is trudging along. A few years ago, it was worse.
Most of the marginal businesses in the state are gone or acquired by hard working folks turning them around. It is hard to find runaway success stories.
Another old saw about our state’s economy refers to Wyoming as “the hole in the donut.”
States around us like Colorado, Idaho, and Montana are doing well while that state stuck in the middle of that circle struggles.
So why is that?
The obvious answer is our reliance on energy. The easy answer is that when national energy prices are high, Wyoming booms, and the country struggles. When prices are low, the country booms and Wyoming struggles.
Is there more to it than this simple formula?
Wyoming reportedly has more government workers per-capita that any state, even more than Alaska. Those jobs usually are bulletproof. When one in ten of your employees works for government, does this indicate a lack of economic viability? Is it easier to be economically successful in states where most folks work for private companies?
This column is full of questions. Hopefully future columns offer a few answers. Some of our comments sound like clichés and long-time assumptions.
A few years ago I wrote a column about how odd it was that Wyoming was the only state in the country without a major city. Even Montana, Idaho, and Alaska have larger metro hubs that spawn innovations, create jobs, and keep young people in their home states.
We pointed out that 40 years ago, Casper and Cheyenne were on par with Boise, Fort Collins, Billings, Anchorage, and Sioux Falls. Today, our two leading cities do not reflect the growth of those other regional centers.
So why did this happen?
Most often given, as a reason, is the lack of a major university in either Casper or Cheyenne compared to those other cities. Apparently a major college is a huge economic driver.
Cold, windy weather was also given as a reason, which I tend to discount.
But perhaps it is not as depressing as I am assuming. Douglas is booming with oil and gas development. Cheyenne and Laramie are doing just fine, thank-you, thanks to huge numbers of state workers and aggressive job development.
Jackson is in a league of its own as the most expensive place to live in the USA. Cody, Sheridan, and Lander are holding up fine with a combination of tourism, outdoor recreation, and lots of retirees moving in.
Gillette and Rock Springs have been two of our most vibrant small cities over the past three decades. Leaders there are working hard to keep things going up.
Earlier this month, a panel was held in Cheyenne to talk about Wyoming’s endless boom-and-bust cycle. It made me recall that former University of Wyoming Professor Phil Roberts has documented 13 of these busts since 1890 statehood over 129 years. This is a bust every decade. That many busts could make a state and its citizens somewhat gun-shy, I would think.
That Cheyenne program was based around a quote from UW Professor Anne Alexander, where she said the state’s economic situation was “not going to get better unless we make it better. There’s no cavalry on the way. We’re the cavalry.”
As a local businessman for almost 50 years, it seemed like we were always working on economic development. People in all cities and towns in Wyoming work their tails off.
The Wyoming Business Council has done well in my opinion. Gov. Matt Mead’s legacy program ENDOW shows promise in many peoples’ eyes.
And yet, here we are in 2019 asking the same questions that I recall being asked at the Wyoming Futures Project 34 years ago during its organizational meeting in Ucross. NBC commentator Pete Williams was our moderator, as I recall.
Discussing and “cussing” economic development is one of my favorite topics. Sometimes it feels like we are chasing our tails. Creating jobs and keeping your town viable is not getting any easier.