Gov. Matt Mead signed an economic diversification bill Friday, but only a “paltry” amount of funding was allocated to set it in motion, said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie.
The Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming (ENDOW) initiative would set up an executive council focused on developing an economic diversification strategy to build a sustainable and diversified, value added economy by 2038. The initiative appropriates $2.5 million from the state’s Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, or rainy-day fund, of which $1.5 million must be used for workforce development.
“The Legislature is not taking this as serious as they need to,” Rothfuss said. “$2.5 million is woefully insufficient to deal with the tasks set before ENDOW.”
While Wyoming has experienced some success boosting and diversifying economic development in individual cities and towns, Rothfuss said the idea behind ENDOW was to magnify the scale and ensure the effort is statewide.
“For the last few years, a number of legislators have been trying to figure out how to diversify our economy,” he said. “We’ve had success on the small scale … but none have been sufficient to make up for the lost revenue we both anticipated and experienced from declines in the mineral sector.”
After discussions with industry leaders, Rothfuss said the governor and legislators identified a need for a “robust” air service statewide and workforce eligibility.
“At the end of the day, it takes more than that,” he said. “It takes active recruitment. It takes working with larger companies to identify what they need to come to Wyoming. ENDOW is the governor’s next step trying to figure out how we organize this.”
The spearhead of the organization effort would be an executive council of 15 voting members and nonvoting members consisting of the presiding officers of the House and Senate, chairmen of the minerals committees and the governor or his designee.
“One of the specific tasks this ENDOW group is going to have is looking around the state for industrial parks,” Rothfuss said.
While several industrial parks exist across the state, Rothfuss said the ENDOW initiative would focus on larger scale projects.
“The model that has been attractive to the state of Wyoming is what they call the industrial heartland in Alberta, Canada, where you have a colossal industrial park with billions of dollars of assets on it,” he said. “The benefit you have from establishing something of that scale is not just the local zoning concepts, but permitting — pre-permitting.”
Reviewing permitting and zoning policies to better attract diverse industries is one of the main differences between ENDOW and the Wyoming Business Council, which also helps promote job growth and economic development.
“Rather than having industry have to come in and do the environmental impact statement, you have the state begin those processes,” Rothfuss said. “You start getting ahead of the game, you put in some infrastructure, and you have a facility that is really ready to do whatever the objectives are.”
With similar locations such as the Cirrus Sky Technology Park already in place, he said ENDOW could benefit Albany County by increasing the marketing effort to recruit business park occupants.
“I think Laramie will be a very attractive location for information-technology- and more-advanced-technology-related projects,” he said. “I would like to see our Cirrus Sky park leveraged in the ENDOW initiative.”
Mayor Andi Summerville said efforts like ENDOW were fundamental to Laramie’s growth.
“I think it’s very important to look at all these types of programs and initiatives diversifying the state’s economy,” Summerville said. “We’re going to have a diverse group of stake holders look at strategies before diving into the diversity efforts.”
Summerville said she hopes to see the initiative push forward Wyoming as a hub for the technology industry.
“In 20 years, I would like to see that energy is not the only focus for the state,” she said. “I would like to see that we’ve broadened our horizons into agro-tech, technology, agro-biz and tourism, so that we are not so much of a boom-and-bust-cycle state.”
If ENDOW helps stabilize the economy, she said Laramie could see an increase in business growth.
“A stable state translates into more funding for (the University of Wyoming) and for the town,” she said.
But the mayor also expressed concerns about ENDOW’s limited funding.
“I understand that we’re in a tight budget crunch, but programs like this are very important,” Summerville said. “I would hope this is seed money to start this program off and that the governor and legislators will continue to fund it in the future.”