By Chrissy Suttles
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE – Efforts to diversify and grow Wyoming’s economy were met with some challenges in 2018, but Wyoming Business Council leaders believe it was a respectable year.
Wyoming’s economic development group released its annual report last week, exploring multi-year progress and where goals fell short.
The report’s data was collected through the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other national and statewide resources, so the most recent information is often a year or two behind.
Because the sometimes unpredictable minerals industry continues to dominate the state’s economy, Business Council leaders, with guidance from ENDOW, hope to balance market conditions and represent tech, education, health, finance and manufacturing in Wyoming.
Some of the group’s highlights this year included creating a $10 million broadband infrastructure grant program, opening an Asia-Pacific trade office to export Wyoming-branded beef to Taiwan and recruiting firearm manufacturer Weatherby from California to Sheridan.
Another big win, according to content marketing manager Tom Dixon, was helping keep Laramie’s technical school, WyoTech, in operation after owners announced plans to close it last year.
Former Gov. Matt Mead and the Wyoming Legislature recruited the Business Council to solicit proposals for a new owner and appropriated $5 million for its purchase.
“It’s a huge thing in Wyoming,” Dixon said. “Students come from all over the country. It’s a big employer in Albany County, and Wyoming overall.”
Areas of statewide growth identified in the report include:
A 5.7 percent increase in lodging and tourism-related sales tax revenue from 2017 to 2018;
A 3 percent wage increase from 2016 to 2017; and
An increase in exports from $1.1 billion in 2016 to $1.2 billion in 2017.
The 24-page report also outlines room for improvement.
First, new business starts in Wyoming fell from 8.7 per 1,000 workers in 2016 to 7.7 in 2017.
The Kauffman Index continues to rank Wyoming sixth in the nation for new business starts per thousand workers, though.
Jobs in Wyoming’s advanced industries sector also decreased 3.6 percent in 2017. This includes sectors such as science, technology, engineering and math.
“I think it can be tied to the ups and downs of Wyoming’s economy,” said Ron Gullberg, WBC business development director. “It signals how closely we’re tied to the state’s economic swings. There’s a one- or two-year lag time, so we’ll see where we wind up, but we’re not sitting idly by.”
To help emerging industries and small business owners in the state, the Legislature allocated resources to create Startup: Wyoming, a Business Council grant program for companies with “high-growth” potential. The Kickstart Wyoming program offers $5,000-$50,000 to Wyoming startups with fewer than 50 employees.
“These are small bets on smart people who want to stay in Wyoming,” Dixon said. “These small bets from the state help them win bigger bets from private investors.”
This year, the group will receive about $64 million in funding and expects to spend $45 million in community grant programs alone.
The remaining expenditures are personnel costs, contractual services and loans.
The Business Council receives its funding from state appropriations, federal funds and special revenue funds. Funding and staffing levels will remain largely the same as last year in Fiscal Years 2019-20.
This year’s budget includes 48 full-time positions and two units – the Wyoming Business Council and the Business Ready Community Grant and Loan Program.
“It’s not as simple as just continuing what we’ve been doing in 2019,” Gullberg said. “We’re doing new things to boost market development, business development and provide technical assistance for businesses.”