Other counties report good news, too
By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily
Of Wyoming’s 23 counties, why is Converse County leading the way economically?
The county boasts an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent, the fourth-lowest rate in the state behind Teton, Crook and Weston counties. It is in the midst of an energy boom bringing new workers to the area. Who better than the local newspaper publisher to explain what it happening in Douglas, Glenrock and Converse County?
Douglas Budget Publisher Matt Adelman says:
“Converse County is at the apex of a massive oil and gas exploration boom that appears to be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
“While we have huge amounts of exploration and development activity underway already, indications are the next few years will see an even bigger explosion of development as more wells are drilled – as many as 17,000 by some estimates based on those permitted. Those wells in the permit pipeline and the 5,000 wells being proposed are the subject of an environmental impact statement that is nearing its conclusion – and many more come into their own.”
Adelman says that all this oil and gas activity eclipses other energy-related activity.
“The Cedar Springs (phase 1) wind farm is beginning work this year, and phases II and III are already well into becoming realities concurrently and consecutively with phase I.
“Rocky Mountain Power’s multi-billion dollar Gateway West transmission line project is underway, with its starting point outside of Glenrock, and those and other wind farms will tie into that and other lines.”
Adelman notes that even though the coal industry has been hit with declines in demand and production, the industry — along with the railroads — is still responsible for most of the long-term energy employment in the area.
He sees development of other energy sources causing the Converse County economy to soar in a short time span.
“Of course, such a surge in growth – with employment spikes, drastically falling unemployment and the accompanying shortage of housing – is not without its struggles, but it is certainly a welcomed relief from the 2016-2018 crash in oil and gas prices and near-standstill in new exploration here,” Adelman concludes.
Converse County Bank President Tom Saunders echoes:
“Those of us that have lived through energy economic cycles remember how quickly the spigot can turn off when commodity prices fall out of bed and the workers spools their rags overnight and head back to Houston.
“When dealing with fossil fuel economies, 12-month budgets are considered long-range planning. Oil and gas economies are good until they’re not. The best cross on an Angus cow is a Lufkin pump.
“Our growth seems manageable at the present time, but the seams on our jeans are starting to get stretched tight. Any help in adding lanes to State Highway 59 would be welcomed. Those of us in energy counties understand the importance of mineral taxes paid in to the State’s coffers, as well as the strains our cities and towns undergo to meet the needs and costs of their development and production… we hope all our citizens of our wonderful State understand as well.”
The situation is different in Fremont County, where the unemployment rate in June was 4.7 percent, the highest in the state.
But in Fremont County’s seat of Lander, business owner Joe Quiroz said he sees opportunities ahead:
“I think we’re holding and have potential for growth. Last week in Jackson, three people asked me quietly and seriously about life in Lander. In fact, they’re all prosperous people who earn and spend, and are tired of the glitz and glam of a ski town.
“And the traffic. But they also need fast connectivity and transportation by a reliable air carrier.
“I’m encouraged by the arrival in Lander of an interventional cardiologist and a vascular surgeon. These are people who will draw patients from around the state. Our future is not going to be based on employment of a large skilled workforce, but of small operators working in a knowledge based economy.
“Lander has physical advantages that many places in Wyoming do not have. The sense of community is paramount. My wife Andrea runs a global enterprise from Lander, a place that will be our base camp as long as we are able to live here. We may have an apartment in London or Paris, but Lander is home.”
Albany County is keeping steady with the University of Wyoming as a stabilizing anchor:
“The Laramie area economy is holding on, which is about all it ever does,” says John Waggener, an archivist for the American Heritage Center. “The tax base here is low due to the fact the largest employer, UW, is a public entity.”
UW historian Phil Roberts says:
“Hard to read the Laramie economy without reference to UW and, so far, I detect a ‘wait-and-see’ feeling about the interim and forthcoming new leadership. The mystery on departure of Laurie Nichols still spawns rumors. We’ll see in the next few weeks what the new semester holds.”
Up on the eastern slope of the Big Horns, things are green and growing, according to retired community leader and former state Rep. Doug Osborn:
“I feel like the Sheridan-Buffalo area is doing well. The towns are clean and well kept, people seem generally happy and there seems to be building going on throughout.”
Retired Buffalo Bulletin Publisher Jim Hicks largely agrees, although he acknowledges the difficulty posed by the deterioration of coal-bed methane in the region:
“I believe Buffalo is holding its own economic issues. The area has seen a sharp decline in Coalbed Methane activities and a lot of those jobs and supporting industries have gone away. Buffalo expects to see some negative spin-off from the decline of coal production, but that should be minor. Tourism is up this year and cattle prices remain at a level to keep at least a small smile on the faces of ranchers.”
Pat Henderson, executive director for Whitney Benefits in Sheridan, describes his town:
“Our Sheridan area is doing very, very well. Tax receipts are up. Housing prices continue to increase. Lots of people moving here. California, Texas and Colorado. We have diversified a lot with our economy.
“One big dark cloud is Cloud Peak mine operating up north of here in Montana. Most of the employees live in Sheridan County. Very good wages but great uncertainty with them staying open. Going through bankruptcy currently and looking for a bidder. If this mine closes, it will be a considerable loss. Need to pray for them and their families.”
Gillette attorney Tom Lubnau II, a former Speaker of the Wyoming House, remarked on oil’s temporary ability to mask the struggles of the Powder River Basin’s coal economy:
“I live in Gillette. The economy is average to below average. Oil is covering for the slump in coal, for awhile.”
Up in Park County, things are plugging along:
Powell real estate agent Dave Reetz says, “Our area is holding its own in my opinion.”
Powell Tribune Publisher Toby Bonner added:
“I would say our economy here in Powell has been holding its own… but unfortunately we’re beginning to see a downturn due to closings of key retail stores like Shopko and others. Amazon and other e-commerce have really hit our Main Street hard. Closings of these retail stores locally have really put a damper on retail advertising in the Powell Tribune as well. We have more doctors, dentists, legal and insurance offices now than retail.”
Snuggled up against the Idaho border, Lincoln County’s Star Valley is benefitting from spill over of the robust tourism economy in Teton County plus agriculture and agribusiness operations.
“The Star Valley area is doing well economically, says Sarah Hale, editor of the Star Valley Independent in Afton.
Up in Newcastle, Newcastle News Letter Journal Editor Alexis Barker says:
“Economically I think we are holding fairly steady, we have had low unemployment rates, a recent increase in our valuation and increases in our taxable sales. I wouldn’t say that these increases necessarily make us above average but are definitely making Newcastle not have to struggle as much as we have in the past. We are also looking at an increase in new businesses in the area with a new grocery store being built, a new travel center (truck stop) and a new private practice (doctor’s office) opening locally.”
John Davis, a retired Worland attorney and author, says:
“We are below average. Worland has not recovered from the oil slowdown of a few years back, when all activity in the oil field slowed. Especially ruinous was the closing of the Worland Schlumberger office.”
Cheyenne attorney Jack Speight says:
“Economy is very good here in Cheyenne thanks the government, Walmart distribution plant, and the other warehouse giants on the east and west side of town. You can’t forget F.E. Warren Air Force Base, which is huge boost to the economy and to the volunteer base for Frontier Days.”
Tom Satterfield, a retired member of the Wyoming Board of Equalization in Cheyenne, says:
“Cheyenne is doing above average thanks to the college, the air force base, good medical hospital and being the center of Wyoming government all contribute. The new renovation of the Herschler/Capitol complex was a big factor for the last four of five years. Good little theater and a great symphony orchestra as well as a very active arts group and a fine Civic Center add to the enjoyment of every one. Also a very active economic organization LEADS are all factors making Cheyenne an enjoyable place to live.
But the former director of one of the state’s most visible business advocates is glum:
“I think the state is in serious trouble given future spending obligations and current revenue streams. Tourism is fine; coal–a transitional mainstay– is getting hammered,” says Bill Schilling.
Former Sweetwater County Commissioner Paula Wonnacott says:
“I think our economy is OK. But, there are uncertainties and I think everyone is worried. There are numerous homes for sale.”