Category archive

Business - page 3

Sound off: Converse County leads state’s boom

in Bill Sniffin/Business/Column/Economic development
Sound off Wyoming's local economies
1816

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.”

Jonah Bank and Taco John’s Raise More than 14k for Suicide Prevention

in Business/Community/News
Jonah Bank and Taco Johns team up for suicide prevention
1524

Jonah Bank and Taco John’s teamed up for the third year in a row to raise money for suicide prevention with Grace For 2 Brothers — a Cheyenne-based suicide prevention organization.

This year, more than $14,500 was raised and the funds will be distributed to suicide prevention centers across Wyoming.

Experienced Wyoming accountant retires after 45 years in business

in Business/Community
1507

One of Wyoming’s most experienced tax accountants is retiring after 45 years in the business.

Joe Paiz is retiring as a partner from the Cheyenne firm of McGee, Hearne and Paiz, a company he formed with eight others in 2000.

Paiz’ former partners praised the Wyoming native for his creative nature.

“You could always walk down the hall and talk to him about taxes,” said Jim Hearne. “And talk about creative. We could always figure out a way to get things done and make things happen.”

Ken Dugas, who worked with Paiz for close to 40 years, said Paiz is one of the smartest businessmen he knows.

“I’ve talked to people a number of times about a problem I can’t solve, I go into Joe’s office, he just sits there for a second and bam, he’s got the answer,” he said.

After graduating from the University of Wyoming in 1975, Paiz joined the IRS and then worked for several other firms before becoming a partner at McGee, Hearne and Paiz.

Paiz also spent 35 years doing volunteer accounting work for organizations such as the Cheyenne Animal Shelter.

Companies look for alternative uses for coal

in Business/Economic development/Energy/News
Companies look for alternative uses for coal
1492

By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

CHEYENNE — Once upon a time, coal helped to usher in a new technological age. So much concentrated energy in such a convenient package helped power the steam engines that drove the Industrial Revolution, transforming the way we live and work. Now, with coal’s future anything but certain, innovators are looking for new uses for the mineral that could fuel a new carbon-based high-tech manufacturing industry.

Coal’s fortunes have fallen in recent years – once the preferred fuel source for power plants, the mineral has been supplanted by cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas in many places, while renewable energy sources like wind and solar have also been ramping up. And while coal is far from dead as a fuel source – China and India alone consumed about 4.56 billion tons of it in just 2017 – international pressure to ultimately phase out coal as an energy source remains strong, with at least 10 European Union nations now vowing to eliminate coal power by 2030 and similar draw downs and moratoria on new coal plants announced even in large coal-consuming nations including China and India.

Wyoming produces more coal than any other state in the U.S., and the mineral severance taxes paid to Wyoming for its coal comprise a large portion of the state’s annual revenues. But where once that amount rose steadily, from $85.3 million in Fiscal Year 1999 to $294.3 million in FY 2011, it has since been in decline, with the state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group (CREG) projecting coal severance taxes of $192.3 million for FY 2019, and continuing to drop through 2024. 

The shift in coal’s economics have led innovators to look for new uses for the mineral, and Randy Atkins, CEO of Ramaco Carbon in Sheridan, is among those leading the push locally. Atkins said that while coal is best known today as fuel for power plants and as a reducing agent in the steelmaking process, it was once believed to have potential far beyond just those uses.

“There used to be a thing called the ‘coal tree’ in the early part of the 20th century. In Germany and even the U.S. they had these tree drawings, it was all the various things you could make from coal,” Atkins said. “We were making all sorts of chemical products, drugs, cosmetics, you name it; all from coal.”

That changed following the invention of catalytic cracking, the process by which crude oil is broken up into smaller molecules that are then made into refined products like gasoline, plastics, and a myriad of other uses. From then on, Atkins said, exploration of coal’s alternative uses effectively evaporated.

“I wouldn’t even say it was left by the wayside, it’s just all the technology advanced through the use of petroleum,” he said. “If you go back to the ’80s there were a couple attempts to make coal to fuels, and that involved making what looked like a refinery for processing coal. … But it’s really been the last three years that some of this stuff has started to come together in ways that began to make the argument that coal needs to be given a second look for uses beyond combustion.”

Since coal is primarily composed of carbon, Atkins and like-minded researchers have been looking at coal’s potential as a source for carbon fiber, a high-strength, low-weight material used primarily in aircraft and the aerospace field, but with the potential for many other uses.

“What we’re trying to do with carbon fiber is to make it dramatically less expensive than today’s use of carbon fiber from petroleum,” Atkins said. “Right now prices are $25 to $45 a pound for (carbon fiber) precursor made from petroleum. We think we can get that down to five bucks.”

In fact, Atkins, along with other members of the National Coal Council, contributed to a report published earlier this spring at the behest of the Department of Energy, “Coal in a New Carbon Age: Powering a Wave of Innovation in Advanced Products and Manufacturing.”

The report lists carbon fiber as just one of many potential coal products likely to see increasing demand in the 21st century. Other uses include advanced prosthetics, biosensors, electrodes, fertilizers and as a medium for 3D printers. And at a cost of $12 to $50 a ton versus nearly $500 a ton for petroleum, Atkins believe coal could find mass appeal again as further uses and innovations are discovered.

“As this becomes more widely known, I think we’ll see some fascinating breakthroughs in materials science,” he said. “Twenty or 30 years from now we may look back and say ‘My gosh, the 2020s were when we switched from widespread use of steel and aluminum to widespread use of carbon fiber from coal,’ that’d be huge.”

If and when those breakthroughs occur, Atkins hopes they’ll be under the roof of iCAM, or the Carbon Advanced Materials research park currently under construction in Sheridan. There, Ramaco Carbon plans to host researchers “from national laboratories, universities, private research groups and manufacturing organizations” in a collaborative effort to unlock the potential of coal’s carbon content. 

Ultimately, Atkins’ plan is to develop an entire “Carbon Valley” akin to northern California’s Silicon Valley, with both research and manufacturing facilities fed by an adjacent coal mine.

That proposed coal mine, the Brook Mine, would be the first new coal mine in Wyoming in half a century, and one Atkins said would be relatively tiny compared to some of the extant mines in the state. But it has yet to materialize after Wyoming’s Environmental Quality Council rejected the mine’s permit application in September 2017 amid concerns over the potential environmental impacts. Ramaco’s appeal of that decision was heard in state district court in Cheyenne earlier this month, even as the company has submitted a revised permit application to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Even if the mine is ultimately approved, and in spite of his optimism about coal’s potential, Atkins says he doesn’t expect carbon fiber production will be what reverses the drop in severance taxes – at least not in the short-term. But in time, he believes coal’s high-tech uses could be what keeps mining a viable industry in the worst-hit parts of the state.

“As products develop over time … mines that can’t make it selling their coal at $12 to $15 a ton may be able to make it if they can sell at $25 to $40,” Atkins said. “I’m hopeful over a medium-term period this will provide an alternative demand for coal beyond its use as thermal coal.”

Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, believes Atkins’ proposals have promise, even if they don’t immediately offset the recent declines in production.

“What Ramaco’s doing with carbon fiber, graphene, graphite, 3D printing, that’s a great way to use our resource and make it viable in the future,” Deti said. “Is it going to replace the 300 million tons we’re mining right now? Probably not. But it’s an innovative use of the resource and it’s a great project.”

Deti said that while coal is still widely used internationally, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, it remains a hard sell domestically. While techniques for capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants are still developing, he said, it’s important for stakeholders in the coal economy to find alternative uses of the mineral.

“We want to continue to use our coal for electricity generation, but it’s really a remarkable resource,” Deti said. “And looking at the direction of where we’re going right now in terms of electricity generation … we need to start looking at other avenues and ways of using the resource.”

Wyoming residents look to themselves to boost business, populations

in Business/Economic development/News
Wyoming small business
1480

By Becky Orr, Cowboy State Daily

Residents in many Wyoming cities and towns are pitching in to invigorate their communities in the face of declining populations.

About three-fourths of the larger cities and towns in Wyoming saw people leave between July 1, 2017, and July 1, 2018, based on estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. A recent news release from Wenlin Liu, Wyoming Economic Administration’s senior economist, said Casper was the hardest hit community with a decline of 351 in population, followed by Rock Springs at a loss of 291. Cheyenne, meanwhile, gained 370 residents.

A random check with residents in towns and cities in the Cowboy State finds that many are trying to turn things around. Many get help from state and federal grants, non-money resources and education as well as private financial sources.

Lots of activity is going on now in Gillette, a city of about 31,903 people that depends heavily on the oil and gas revenues. Gillette lost 134 people between July 1, 2017 and July 1, 2018, according to Liu’s news release. The loss reflects an economic slide caused by plummeting oil and gas prices and diminished coal production.

Phil Christopherson, chief executive officer for Energy Capital Economic Development, the economic development arm for Campbell County, said city and county revenues dropped 30 to 40 percent because of the downturn a couple of years ago. But residents stayed strong. 

“Everybody came together and said ‘we’re going to make it through this.’ The community spirit really showed through” and is there today, he said.

The county’s economy is rebounding now, but the downturn meant “that the community became committed to diversify the economy,” Christopherson said. 

Energy Capital Economic Development proceeded with a business incubator program that was in the works when the crash occurred. The business incubator opened in September and has about nine business interests involved.

The agency also started plans for an advanced carbon research facility for exploring the many uses of coal. Its goal is to prove the technology exists to make the alternative uses of coal commercially viable.

The Wyoming Business Council will vote June 20 on a $1.4 million grant for the project, which also received money from an EDA federal grant and private investments.

In Rock Springs, officials are trying to determine how best to develop 15,000 acres of land near the Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport, said Kayla McDonald, business development director for the Sweetwater County Economic Development organization.

Money for the $66,000 study will come mostly from a Wyoming Business Council grant as well as the economic development organization, the county, Rock Springs and Green River. The study will provide ideas about what businesses and industries would be best to recruit for the site, she said.

Economic development supporters also want to recruit more retail businesses and restaurants to the area, she said.

Meanwhile, Powell, a farming town in northwest Wyoming that added only four people to its census during the year, is also looking at new development. Residents now are excited about the planned construction of a new hotel and convention center, said Christine Bekes, executive director of the Powell Economic Partnership.

The center, with an estimated cost of $10 million, is planned to open in 2020 and should create around 33 new jobs. It is the result of a partnership between the Powell Economic Partnership and the Wyoming Business Council. Additional hotel rooms are in demand, Bekes said. 

“We’re right near Yellowstone National Park and the lodging is inadequate,” she said.

The new hotel will increase available lodging by 50 percent.

Other projects in Powell’s near future will rely heavily on community volunteers. A community action group is building Powell’s first public dog park. A dog park is high on the list of what people who are relocating want to see. 

“Those who live in urban environments come to expect it,” Bekes said.

Effective economic development also demands creative thinking.

“I think the communities that are thinking outside the box are finding some success” in terms of positive community development efforts, said Justin Schilling, coordinator of member services for the Wyoming Association of Municipalities. 

Schilling points as an example to high-tech education, such as Cheyenne’s Array School of Technology and Design. The city has a diversified workforce, allowing it to offer career training for high-tech jobs, he added.

Another creative project Schilling cited is the $7 million Evergreen Plaza, a proposed 30-room assisted living facility in Torrington, where the population dropped by 14 during the year.

Money to build the project will come from sources like a $2.6 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council, a loan from local banks and a partnership with the private assisted living provider. The facility can be a solid economic development tool, according to Schilling.

Positive economic development doesn’t always mean building big warehouses. Tom Dixon, marketing management coordinator for the Wyoming Business Council, said that some projects – like the Civic Center Commons park in Cheyenne – “help develop the soul of a place and make people feel more connected.”

Projects don’t have to be expensive, either. Sprucing up a downtown with flower planters, bushes or a giant chess set can make a big difference, Dixon added. 

Even though Cheyenne is the fastest-growing city in the state — it gained 370 people in one year — efforts to boost the economy are ongoing.

Economic development in Cheyenne long has relied on Cheyenne LEADS, a private, non-profit organization with its own volunteer board of directors. Business and community leaders formed LEADS 32 years ago to attract good jobs and industries to Laramie County, Executive Director Randy Bruns said. 

LEADS receives $50,000 a year each from the City of Cheyenne and Laramie County and money from private donations. More than 80 industries and 6,000 jobs have been created in Laramie County because of the work of LEADS. 

“I am still doing this job because when LEADS succeeds, when we have a success, we know that the result of our work helps to do good things in the community,” Bruns said.

Help Wanted: Low unemployment means hiring difficulties in Cheyenne

in Business/News
1477

While Cheyenne’s low unemployment rate is good news for its economy, it means hard times for the city’s employers who are having trouble finding workers.

Cheyenne’s unemployment rate as of the end of April was 3.1 percent, compared to Wyoming’s statewide average of 3.6 percent.

“Help Wanted” signs can be found throughout Cheyenne, a sign of the resulting labor shortage that employers must face when trying to hire workers.

Businesses will have to be more creative than usual in luring staff members, said Stephanie Meisner, vice president of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce.

“It causes us as employers, as well as businesses within the community, to have to think more creatively as to how to recruit, as well as retain employees and to be a little bit more competitive with one another in terms of workforce,” she said.

Astrid, the owner of the Plains Hotel, agreed the low unemployment rate makes hiring more difficult.

“It’s very severe for employers right now,” she said.

Katy Rinne, director of marketing and business development for one of Cheyenne’s newest restaurants, The Metropolitan, said her property is almost fully staffed. She attributed the achievement to the restaurant’s training for new workers.

“We’re happy to work with them, we’re happy to show them the way that we want to offer service and really train them to be great employees and to have a great work experience for them and for our customer,” she said.

Missile systems upgrade could bring billions to SE Wyoming

in Business/Economic development/military/News
1467

If the missiles under control of F.E. Warren Air Force Base are made part of a massive upgrade program, Cheyenne could see challenges in managing the resulting growth, according to the former head of the Wyoming Business Council.

Bob Jensen, now part of Wyoming Entrepreneurs, said F.E. Warren’s involvement in the Ground Based Strategic Missile Upgrade program could generate growth among existing businesses and bring in new businesses as well.

“So this is going to be a big change and managing that change is as big a deal as having the opportunity in the first place,” he said.

Boeing and Northrop Grumman are in competition for a project to upgrade the nation’s Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, about 400 of which are deployed in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, at an estimated cost of $90 billion.

Jensen said if the missiles in Wyoming are made part of the project, opportunities for growth would be seen throughout Cheyenne.

“People that are already here will have an opportunity to grow their businesses in relation to this if they want to,” he said. “But there will be new businesses that will come in and new workforce that comes in.”

To take full advantage of the program, Wyoming and Cheyenne will need to be able to look ahead and act on the opportunities it provides, said Eric Trowbridge, the founder of Cheyenne’s Array School of Technology and Design.

“We must have ‘leapfrog’ moments,” he said. “Wyoming does something that no one else has done before. We have to have that courage to be able to say we’re going to do it and leapfrog ahead of all the other states to do it.”

Boeing and Northrop Grumman have been awarded three-year contracts for the preliminary design phase of the upgrade.

An upgrade to Wyoming’s nuclear weapons system could be coming to Cheyenne’s FE Warren Air Force Base — but is Cheyenne ready?

Invention of Taco Johns potato ole

in Business/Food and Beverage
1463

By Cowboy State Daily

If you’ve ever eaten at a Taco Johns you know about the potato ole.

That crispy, crunchy, salty, seasoned tater tot so good you would never call it just a tater tot. But how did the potato ole become a central player on the menu of a Mexican fast-food joint?

We’ve got the skinny on the history of the deep fried delicacy that almost burned out before it blew up as a west-Mex sensation.

There’s a whole lotta Mexican goin’ on: Taco 🌮 Johns celebrates 50

in Business/News
1455

“If you’ve got a tiger by the tail, hang on. I knew this was a tiger and I was ready to go right then,” that’s how Taco Johns co-founder Harold Holmes remembers deciding to embark on an entrepreneurial adventure that started in Cheyenne, Wyoming and grew to hundreds of restaurants over 50 years.

Taco Johns celebrates 50 years in business this week and we’ve got the skinny on how a humble taco stand on Carey Ave. – that was built in a week – turned into a national fast-food chain serving tacos (and potato oles) to fans in 23 states.

National Science Foundation funds first Wind River Start-up Challenge

in Business/News
National Science Foundation funds first Wind River Start-up Challenge
1308

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

A recently announced entrepreneurship challenge focused on engaging future business startups in the Wind River Indian Reservation could help Native Americans return to their entrepreneurial roots, a University of Wyoming spokesperson said.

“We don’t see that much entrepreneurship or very many businesses started by community members on the reservation,” said James Trosper, executive director for University of Wyoming High Plains American Indian Research Institute. “But we used to be entrepreneurs. Both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho were very rich tribes. A lot of historians referred to the Arapaho as the ‘Phoenicians of the Plains.’”

Hosted by the UW’s business incubator, the Wyoming Technology Business Center, the Wind River Start-Up Challenge is the center’s fourth entrepreneur initiative statewide and the first to be tried outside the center’s facilities, said WTBC-Laramie Director Dave Bohling.

“No one has ever done this before with the National Science Foundation Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) funds,” Bohling said. “So, we’re an experiment.”

When Trosper heard about the EPSCoR grant’s need for diverse recipients, he said he pitched the idea for a startup challenge on the reservation.

“The WTBC wanted to have entrepreneurship initiatives statewide,” Trosper explained. “But they didn’t have anything specifically for the reservation.”

The EPSCoR program provided the startup challenge with $50,000, which he said could be awarded to Native American entrepreneurs with successful business pitches during the next two years.

With the funding secured, WTBC decided to model the challenge after the Fisher Innovation Launchpad, a long-running startup initiative based out of UW in Laramie.

WTBC-Laramie Assistant Director Fred Schmechel said Fisher has proven the model’s efficacy.

“The university has had great success with our startup challenges,” Schmechel said. “We’re hoping this is a model that can be applied to an area that’s far less served than the rest of the state.”

Culture of dependency

Growing up on the reservation, Trosper said entrepreneurs were absent from the community.

“In the back of my mind, I always wondered ‘Why aren’t my people starting businesses,’” he said. “I was lucky, though. My mother earned a degree in optics, returned to the reservation and started a business called Wind River Optical. So, I got to watch firsthand the success entrepreneurship could provide.”

Trosper’s mother was a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe and the great granddaughter of Chief Washakie. His father was Northern Arapaho and the great grandson of Chief Friday. Thus, Trosper said he has strong ties to both tribes’ past, and he would like to see them return to their entrepreneurial roots.

“The government, when they put us on the reservation, they said, ‘You can’t leave this geographical area,’ which ended our trade routes and fur-trade economy,” he explained. “Instead, they said they would provide us blankets, rations and food. And that created a culture of dependency.”

That culture remains strong today, he said, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs reported in 2005 the Wind River Reservation unemployment rate was more than 70 percent.

“We’re not setting out to change unemployment right away,” Trosper said. “But as we start to change the culture of dependency, things are going to start to change in the community. I think entrepreneurship will have positive effect on the community as a whole.”

Pitches

While the challenge won’t officially kick off until fall, Bohling said WTBC staff will be visiting the reservation throughout the summer to work with potential participants.

“The first step is pitching an idea: who are you, what problem are you trying to solve, what’s your solution and who are your potential customers,” he said. “We’re only asking for a paragraph or two, because most proposals don’t survive as submitted.”

Prior to submitting pitches, Trosper said WTBC staff will mentor participants, refining their ideas and helping them get an idea about how much funding they might need to get started. 

“We want to provide some training right up front before the competition even starts,” he explained. “And during the competition, they will receive mentorship so they can really understand what the UW has to offer to them.”

Despite the use of terms like winner and competition, Bohling said participants are not competing against each other for funding, but rather themselves. 

“This is not a contest — the challenge part is internal,” he explained. “There will be a lot work on their part to get these pitches together and get their ideas off the ground. We provide some money, but we’re investing in sweat equity.”

Once pitch day arrives, a panel of judges will decide which ideas are viable in their current form and in the current market. If an idea isn’t funded, Schmechel said participants are encouraged to continue working with the WTBC and resubmit amended pitches in following years.

No matter the challenge’s number of participants or funded pitches, Trosper said he believes the initiative could be a catalyst for change on the reservation.

“Entrepreneurship isn’t something we’re born with, it’s something that has to be taught,” he said. “Getting people familiar with that, it will take time. But, I think the startup challenge is a way to really get our community to start thinking about what they could do on the business level.”

The partnership between HPAIRI and WTBC was announced at the WY-Wind River: Economic Development & Entrepreneurship Symposium. Find our coverage of that event here.

Go to Top