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Economic development

Competitive pay, flexibility keys to hiring seasonal workers, say officials

in Economic development/News
2399

By Mary Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s unemployment rate is a good indicator of a healthy economy: people  are working and therefore able to buy homes, cars  — and Christmas and Hanukkah gifts. 

But according to state officials, the current unemployment rate of 3.8 percent means that employers looking to hire extra help during the holiday season may have a tough time of it. The low unemployment rate is a curse to employers, Denise Rodriguez, business representative in the Department of Workforce Services, told Cowboy State Daily.

“It’s a job-seeker’s market instead of an employer’s market right now,” she said,“(It) makes hiring overall very difficult for employers to find individuals seeking employment.”

According to Chris Brown, the executive director of the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association and the Wyoming Retail Association, finding seasonal help is incredibly difficult for businesses. 

“If you were to go round on the horn and ask (members of the WLRA and WRA) what the biggest challenge is for them, nine out of ten — without a doubt — would say finding an adequate work force,” he said. 

And it’s not just a seasonal problem, he said. 

“The problem is that in Wyoming there are not enough employees available,” he said.  “It’s the least populated state in the country, so it has the least populated workforce in the country.”

Brown and DWS representatives have some advice for employers hoping to score some good workers to help with the holiday rush.

Offer competitive pay

“The more competitive pay the better,” suggested Jeff Schulz, a manager for the DWS Workforce Service Centers. “If a company is paying $12 an hour, for example, if you can pay $13 an hour, you can get them (to leave their current employer).”

According to Rodriguez, employers regularly resort to poaching staff from other employers.

“I had a 21-year-old tell me yesterday, ‘I’m thinking about looking for another job that pays more,’” Rodriguez said. “I said, ‘Don’t you think about burning bridges?’  He said, ‘I think I’ll look at getting more money.’

“(Job-seekers) can go back and forth,” she continued. “If they leave an employer and things don’t work out at the other job, they can go back and they’ll take them back.  Chances are the position still needs to be filled.”

Provide flexible hours

A lot of people looking for seasonal work already have full-time jobs, and they’re looking for a job where they can work evenings and weekends, said Ty Stockton, DWS communications manager.

Others are students who want to make some extra money over the holidays, Brown said. 

“In both the retail and hospitality industries, flexible schedules, being able to work with students and their school schedules, give them part-time hours — employers tout those things to supplement their work force,” he said.  “They need to offer (applicants) a great place to work, have fun and make money.”

Be innovative 

DWS Business Representative Terri Wells suggested that in addition to competitive salaries and flexible hours, employers be creative in their approach to attracting workers. 

“Think outside of the box,” she said. “What can you offer as an add-on?” 

“A lot of companies offer retention bonuses, so if you stay six months or so they give you a bonus,” Shulz said. “There are a variety of ways you can approach it, but the key is to make the employee as happy as they can be.”

Try a “surgical approach”

Shulz likened participating in a job fair to select the right candidate for the job to conducting precise surgery. 

“We do a mini-job fair every month,” he said.

The DWS job fairs are geared specifically for particular industries.  Employers who take part have an opportunity to grab the job-seekers most attracted and best suited for that industry. 

Check out the DWS website 

Workforce Services’ website, wyomingatwork.com, is designed to help not only job-seekers, but employers as well. They can search the system for resumes that match the kind of applicant they’re looking for and send a message to the job seeker. 

Consult a local Workforce Services Center

Employers who need more help finding seasonal workers can call or visit their local DWS center.  There are 22 centers throughout the state.

“If any employers are having difficulty filling or retaining positions and are looking for ideas, they can contact one of the local DWS centers,” Rodriguez said. 

Change in the air? Business Forum explores how to move Wyoming forward

in Economic development/News
2366

By Cowboy State Daily

An annual meeting of the state’s business leaders this week provided plenty of opportunities for discussions about the changes Wyoming is facing.

Attendees at the Governor’s Business Forum in Cheyenne shared thoughts and ideas on how the state should prepare to meet the challenges of the future.

Such changes do not have to occur at the expense of the state’s quality of life, said Cindy DeLancey, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance, the group that hosted the gathering.

“We’re cowboys and cowgirls,” she said. “We love so many things about Wyoming, but we also realize the world is changing around us. We can still be cowboys and be ready for 21st century  jobs and make sure our children have the skills and the foundation to be able to be good, productive citizens for the next generation.”

For such change to happen, gatherings such as the Business Forum are necessary, said Laurie Farkas, community affairs manager for Black Hills Energy.

“I think when we get together and start really thinking about the issues critically, that’s when change, especially good change, can happen,” she said.

Among those taking part in the conversation were students from the University Wyoming.

Rudy Nesvik, a UW freshman studying mechanical engineering, said the state should work to bring in businesses that would help lure new residents with advanced degrees.

“I think that Wyoming can look at attracting some of those manufacturing businesses to bring in more engineers,” he said. “We can have this focus on career and technical education, but I think we should also keep in mind other industries and other ways we can grow into the future.”

Kaci Schmick agreed the state needs to work harder to find businesses that would keep Wyoming youth in the state.

“We’re really just trying to get people to stay in Wyoming,” said the UW freshman. “A lot of jobs students want, they have to leave the state to find those jobs.”

Although far from the R-word, Wyoming’s economy is slowing

in Economic development/News
Wyoming Economy Chart
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By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s economy continues to grow, but it’s at a slower pace than in the past – raising the question of whether a recession is in the near future. 

Consider this: Wyoming’s number of single-family residential building permits increased by just six in the first eight months of the year over the same period last year. 

That’s according to the Wyoming MACRO Report, a quarterly publication looking at economic and revenue data.

Non-farm employment is up only 1.3 percent in August of this year, compared to August 2018, blunted by 1,400 jobs lost in mining – including coal — and virtually no growth in oil and gas jobs, the report states.

Natural gas production was down 11.2 percent in August compared to August 2018, and coal production was down 8.9 percent in the first eight months of the year. On the other hand, oil production was up 17.3 percent in an August year-over-year comparison, the report said. 

Generally, a recession is defined as a decrease in gross domestic product over two successive quarters. The data in the MACRO report does not show Wyoming in such a contraction.

However, the economy of the state – and the country – haven’t been in a recession for a decade. They may be overdue for one.

“The average economic expansion is much shorter than this,” said Anne Alexander, a University of Wyoming associate vice provost and economist. “It’s now the longest we’ve had. But it’s called a cycle for a reason. They do turn.”

The reasons Wyoming economic growth is decelerating have to do with the trade wars, the headwinds that coal has faced in recent years and the effects of a slower national economy, Alexander said. 

“It’s a combination of national, international and our own state’s circumstances,” she said. 

There is no formula for economists to predict a recession with certainty. But Alexander said it’s more likely than not that the economy headed toward a larger slowdown. 

“The indicators have been pointing to that way for a while,” she said. “The arrival time might already be here or might be early 2020.”

Across the country, manufacturing is downU.S. home sales are steady but prices are down and rail freight volumes are down, she said. 

Wyoming typically gets an advance warning – sometimes six months — before a recession, said Jim Robinson, principal economist for the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information’s Economic Analysis Division. 

That’s because the national economy often heads south before the state’s. For instance, when the demand for factory goods decreases, it takes some time for manufacturing energy demand to also decline, Robinson said, and Wyoming’s primary export is energy.

Robinson, who helps put together the MACRO and other economic reports, said he is keeping an eye on retail sales in a sector known as discount grocery stores and super centers. Think Walmart or Sam’s Club. 

“That subsector for Wyoming is down 4.5 percent this year,” he said. “That’s consumer spending. That’s important.”

The decrease may have to do with President Donald Trump’s tax cuts, which boosted consumer spending in 2018.

“That’s not happening to the same degree this year,” he said. “But also, consumers are starting to pull back this year.”

Cody restauranteurs struggle with labor shortages

in Economic development/Jobs/News
2243

A low unemployment rate is creating some difficult situations for Cody’s restaurants.

Park County’s August unemployment rate of 3.3 percent is lower than the statewide average of 3.5 percent and the national average of 3.8 percent.

However, the low unemployment rate means there are fewer workers available, leaving businesses like Bubba’s Barbecue, owned by Brian and Denise Wiegand, without enough staff to remain open seven days a week. The Wiegands said for the first time in eight years, they have had to close their restaurant one day a week.

“Every week it seems like there’s another business opening in Cody, diminishing the labor pool even more,” Brian Wiegand said. “This has been the first winter, however, where it has really hit us, this shortage of labor in Cody.”

The problem is similar at the Proud Cut Saloon, owned for more than 30 years by Becky and Del Nose. 

Becky Nose said because of unreliable workers, she often does not know if she can open for a day of business.

“They text you at 4 in the morning and say ‘I’m not coming in’ or they randomly text you through the night and tell you they don’t like this or that and so they just don’t show up,” she said. “Or they just don’t show up at all. So every day, you’re actually standing in the doorway in the mornings, hoping you have enough people to open your business for that day.”

Lacking sufficient staff, Cassie’s Supper Club was forced to eliminate its lunch service this year, said Melody Singer, who has owned and operated the business for 25 years with her husband Steve.

“It’s so hard to keep a full staff at lunchtime and keep a staff at dinner time,” she said. “Dinner for us is a better choice, we’re a steakhouse. So we did away with the lunch service.”

Donna Lester, manager of the Cody office of the state Department of Workforce Services, said she understands the frustrations of the restauranteurs.

“You have people coming in here every day saying they don’t have jobs, they don’t have enough money to pay the bills or to put food on the table,” she said. “And then we don’t see them at our job fairs. There’s a distinction between what people say they want to do and what they’re actually willing to do.”

The restaurant owners agreed they would take the necessary steps to stay in operation despite the labor shortage.

“We’re trying to get labor hired so that we can get back open seven days a week, but if we can’t, we’ll keep closed one day a week, maybe two days a week,” said Denise Wiegand of Bubba’s Barbecue. “Because we know we’ll get the labor come the summertime.”

Aerospace, defense companies meet Wyoming businesses in conference

in Economic development/military/News
Cheney
2186

By Tim Mandese, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming business leaders and U.S. aerospace and defense companies met in Casper this week to explore the chances of increasing Wyoming’s access to the aerospace and defense market. 

The Casper Area Economic Development Association, Forward Casper and its sister group Forward Sheridan organized the Wyoming Aerospace and Defense Industry Supply Chain Conference held Monday and Tuesday at the Casper Events Center.

The A&D supply chain consists of those companies that support and supply the aerospace industry and defense contractors. According to event organizers, the goal of the event was to raise the awareness of industry dynamics, opportunities and challenges. The conference introduced Wyoming and its businesses to A&D prime companies such as Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Perspecta, among others from around the country.

“It’s a huge growing industry. It’s not in a retraction mode, it’s in a growth mode, and they need to know what resources and opportunities we have in Wyoming,” said Jay Stender, chief executive officer for Forward Sheridan. 

Another important mission of the organizers was to educate those in attendance on what the Cowboy State has to offer. 

“There’s no place better for people to be than here (Wyoming) and we just want to get our story out,” said U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, who opened the conference with a welcoming address.

During her speech, Cheney told those attending that the defense industry was more important than ever to the country’s safety and security. In an interview with the Cowboy State Daily, the congresswoman also said she is committed to helping to bring more aerospace and defense business to the state.

“One of the really important roles we have at the federal level is helping to make sure that in our local communities that organizations like CAEDA here, like Sheridan Forward, and Casper Forward, that everyone is aware of the federal programs that exist, and we can help bring people together…,” she said.

Hits to coal prompt leaders to look elsewhere for development

in Economic development/Energy/News
As revenue from coal continues to decline, many people around the state are looking at new ways to use the state’s rich resource and think outside of the coal box for future portfolio diversification.
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By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

As revenue from coal continues to decline, many people around the state are looking at new ways to use the state’s rich resource and think outside of the coal box for future portfolio diversification.

Many people watching renewable energy expect it to eliminate the need for coal, but they are often not thinking out of the box, according one state representative.

State Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland, said people are often neglecting coal’s future possibilities. Greear is co-chair of the Legislature’s Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee. He said the state has many developments it is exploring that still involve coal.

Greear said the University of Wyoming is continuing research on carbon capture sequestration and the utilization of the C02 for enhanced oil recovery. He visited the Petra Nova carbon capture and sequestration facility in Houston and believes Wyoming facilities would be great candidates for the same technology.

The Petra Nova facility is currently the only existing American coal-fired power plant using the carbon recapture technology, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The facility captures the C02 from the plant, liquifies it, and then injects it into oil fields. 

The process causes oil to swell, increasing the oil recovery volume. The process has reduced C02 total emissions at the Petra Nova facility by 33 percent.

Rob Godby, director for the UW’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, said the state is actively helping develop new products for coal to maintain tax revenues. He said once promising technologies become developed, companies are more willing to adopt them. 

He pointed as an example to pipelines in Wyoming delivering C02 from natural sources to enhanced oil recovery operations. If C02 captured from coal-fired plants could be sold, the revenue could offset the overall cost of coal-generated electricity and make it more competitive with natural gas. 

Not a coal problem

However, if the state continues to focus only on coal as a large revenue source, leaders may be missing other great possibilities, according to one person working directly with growing businesses.

Fred Schmechel, assistant director of the Wyoming Technology Business Center, works at the UW in a program that helps businesses grow with a goal of bringing more revenue to the state and employing residents. So when state revenues decline, he sees the results directly in his workplace. Yet, he cautions everyone who considers this a “coal problem.”  

“Wyoming doesn’t have a coal problem,” Schmechel said. “Wyoming has a revenue problem. When we reframe it like that and figure out how we pay for our services, that opens up much broader funnel of possibilities.”

 Schmechel sees diversification of the economy and expansion of revenue streams as vital to the future growth of the state.

“If we keep trying to sell to the same 10 people, none of us are going to get rich, but if we broaden our scope and sell beyond our borders, bring that cash here, that’s where we increase our lot,” Schmechel said.

Schmechel said if wages increase, people can pay more for services and make the state less dependent on coal revenue. He also suggested that getting businesses to use services based in the Cowboy State can help expand revenue streams. 

“If we continue to focus on developing companies that solve problems outside of Wyoming and bring more revenue in, that ultimately brings more cash on hand to play with,” he said.

Greear also thinks the state needs to explore alternatives to coal, but bringing new business to Wyoming is easier said than done.

Severance taxes or bust

“We are going to still be mineral reliant in this state so long as we hold onto our current tax policy,” Greear said. 

He added he does not see the tax policy changing, but that he believes a policy change is needed. 

Change, however, would alter the dynamic and culture of the state. That places Greear at odds with some of his constituents who simply aren’t ready for change. As an elected official, Greear said he must listen to them.   

“Most people understand the changes with society,” Greear said. 

He added it is easier to push those concepts in towns like Laramie and Cheyenne because of their proximity to Fort Collins and Denver, but such changes might not fly in a town like Worland. 

Towns are also dependent on larger populations to attract and sustain more tech and business, leaving smaller towns out of the mix. It also makes it unrealistic to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to the issue, he said.

Holding out for the youth

Schmechel also said he wants to keep young people in the state and create jobs for them so they can to “plant their roots” for future generations.

Schmechel sees economic diversification and development as a way to expand a town’s culture, not diminish it.

“There are lots of people who look at anything that we are doing like this and assume we are losing our culture of Wyoming, and I think those people are mistaken,” Schmechel said.

“We don’t have to be Boulder or San Francisco. We are never going to be those communities. We have found in Laramie, Casper and Sheridan, where we have our three incubators for the WTBC, that each of those communities bring on their own feel.” 

As those communities grow and develop, their core values are moved forward, growing and strengthening their existing culture.

Godby also sees the need for diversification as necessity to independence.

“Do we need to diversify more, yeah,” Godby said. “The problem is when you rely on energy, you are going to be bound by energy cycles that are out of your control and typically driven by things outside of your state.”

The Blackjewel effect

Rick Mansheim, manager of state Workforce Centers in Gillette and Newcastle, has watched the Blackjewel layoffs from the front row. He has a lot of conversations with the workers and businesses around the state. He also believes Wyoming needs more jobs outside of energy.

“The key is diversification,” Mansheim said. “We need to broaden our scope.” 

He believes internships and early career path exposure is key to getting young workers involved in that effort.

Greear believes economic development around the state is productive, but often suffers from growing pains.

“There are some really good economic development organizations within communities,” Greear said. “But it’s kind of the hand your dealt. Cheyenne is going get a lot more looks at things you are not going to get in Worland.”

 He added that state leaders sort of had tunnel vision attracting specific types of businesses that were not fits for every community. 

“What is going to work in Cheyenne is not going to work in the Big Horn Basin,” Greear said. 

ENDOW’s impact across industries

But he believes creative ideas are still important. He cited the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming — ENDOW — initiative as helping leaders think outside of the box. 

ENDOW was created in 2016 to diversify and expand the state economy.  Greear said ENDOW challenged people to think outside of the box and pursue opportunities such as value-added agriculture, which is changing a product to enhance its value through niche marketing, uniqueness or improving a supply chain.

Schmechel, whose organization assists many businesses with incubator programs and creative solutions, sees both existing and new economic sectors as exciting opportunities for business growth.

He added Wyoming’s vast spaces would be great for autonomous vehicles and drones. In addition, he suggested exploring UW’s cache of intellectual property for application in industries such as agriculture and making sure it is being used correctly.

He said the state’s agriculture community is doing great things and should be expanded upon.

Trade sector could use displaced coal miners, officials say

in Economic development/Energy/News
2129

By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

Business and government leaders around the Wyoming are scrambling to make sure Wyoming workers remain Wyoming workers as the jobs in the coal industry subside.

In 2016, nearly 7 percent of the state workforce was employed in the extractive energy sector, which includes coal, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. But with Blackjewel’s recent layoff of nearly 600 people, the state will feel the shockwaves on multiple fronts. The immediate issue is figuring out how to re-employ displaced workers. The good news is skilled trade workers are in more demand than many may think, according to some officials around the state.

Rick Mansheim, manager for state Workforce Centers in Gillette and Newcastle, has been in the front lines of trying to get the miners back to work. He said he has heard that more than 100 miners may have found new jobs, but his organization has no way to know the exact number.

“We have a whole gamut of training we can do,” Mansheim said. 

He said that some of the Blackjewel employees are taking commercial driver’s license and other college classes. He added that in the past, his offices have also been able to help people into the nursing and welding fields.

After Blackjewel’s two mines closed, the Gillette and Newcastle Workforce Centers held information sessions at the Gillette College Technical Education Center that attracted more than 300 people from the mines. The centers also held career fairs with employers from the region that attracted nearly 500 job seekers.

Help wanted in the trades

Mansheim said many companies heard of the layoffs and reached out to him directly looking to fill the void of trade workers.

State Rep. Mike Greear, R-Gillette, said the state needs more trade workers. Greear is the co-chair of the Legislature’s Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee and also the president and CEO of Wyoming Sugar.

As a CEO, Greear said he cannot recruit skilled workers. They just aren’t there. So he must develop and continuously look for them. He said he has heard similar stories from other businesses in the state.

“I think it is an unintended consequence of the Hathaway (scholarship) program, which is a wonderful program,” Greear said.

He said many young people have chosen to pursue a college education rather than enter the trade sector.

As a company president, he is soliciting high school students and offering them trade jobs with possible future opportunities that include welding or machinist certifications for those who would like to remain in their communities.

But he can only do so much as a business leader. As a state leader, he is also limited.

“The Legislature can do good things—it can set policy, it can help guide us over some bumpy roads, but in the end, it’s got to be up to the industry to be able to attract them,” Greear said. “The government can’t do everything for everyone.”

The disappearing coal job

For those workers who want to remain in their communities, finding coal jobs is going to be more difficult as the industry slows and transforms.

Economist Rob Godby, director for the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, doesn’t see coal magically rebounding anytime soon because technology and the free market will naturally reduce coal’s demand.

“Coal is in real decline,” Godby said. “The (Blackjewel) bankruptcy this summer has demonstrated how disruptive that can be.”

Godby said he expects renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to become the dominant providers of energy in the future because of policy changes with climate change and technological advances that make renewable energy production more efficient.

Greear acknowledged renewables are part of an overall portfolio for energy, but they are often erroneously blamed for the decreasing coal demand.

“The real driver of coal moving out of being the more attractive option is low natural gas prices—plain and simple,” Greear said. 

He added that as coal’s share of energy production has declined, the share provided by renewable energy has increased. But renewables have revealed some reliability issues, according to Greear, so he sees natural gas as a more stable source of energy.

Godby said technology is to blame for cheaper natural gas, which he calls “the largest factor to coal’s decline.”

In addition, Godby said technological advances in natural gas production and renewable energy production have caused coal to lose its market share prominence. The impact will not likely reverse, he said.

“You can’t put those technologies back…you can’t put those genies in a bottle,” Godby said. “Once they are invented, they are really hard to forget. Technological progress happens all the time. It’s disruptive, and old technologies are replaced by new ones.

“Nobody’s building the coal-fired power plants,” Godby continued. “So eventually they are going to age out, be retired. And they are not being replaced with other coal-fired power plants.” 

Diminished local dollars from coal

Fewer coal-fired plants mean less revenue for the state and towns.

Coal production in Wyoming has declined 22.6 percent in last five years, 29.7 percent in last the 10 years, and 34.8 percent since its booming peak of 2008, according to the Wyoming Mining Association.

Coal is the second largest source of tax revenue to state and local governments, according to the WMA, with about $1 billion in tax revenue paid every year.

But the reality is that coal may not always be able to pay the bulk of the government’s bills—at least not in its current state.

Greear said state and local governments have some time to prepare for a downturn in revenues.

While coal-fired plants are shutting down, supply projections suggest production of 240 million to 260 million tons for the next 10 years.

Although Greear expects a slow, steady decline in production, he doesn’t count coal out of Wyoming’s revenue stream entirely.

Greear said there is demand for Powder River Basin coal among some Asian countries. However, efforts to build coal terminals in Washington that would allow shipments to Asian countries have failed.

Godby said even if the terminals were built, they wouldn’t likely be a long-term solution to the coal industry’s woes and may just prolong its demise.

He added even though a prolonged death may still be economically beneficial to the state in the short-term basis, the long-term outlook may not be positive.

“It’s far from guaranteed that the developing world is going to stick to coal for quite a while,” Godby said. “It is also the case that countries like China and others are turning to renewables and natural gas much more quickly than people expected.”

Wyoming enters into deal to boost meat exports to Taiwan

in Agriculture/Economic development/News
2109

An agreement between Wyoming and Taiwan signed earlier this week should increase the amount of Wyoming beef and lamb sold overseas, according to Gov. Mark Gordon.

Gordon, speaking after the signing of the agreement with Taiwanese meat packers Monday, said the deal should expand Wyoming’s export markets.

“It’s important that we have that export market,” he said. “And it’s particularly exciting to me that lamb will now be part of what we’re doing with beef and we can show the excellence of Wyoming products just generally speaking.”

The signing ceremony was attended by parties to the agreement including the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, Mountain States Lamb Cooperative and Mountain States Rosen Co., a company with offices in Douglas that produces lamb and veal, and the Taiwan Meat Packers Association.

Ming-Sui Kao, of the Taiwan Meat Packers Association, said the quality of Wyoming’s beef and lamb convinced his association to enter into negotiations for the agreement.

Much of the meat to be sold to Taiwan is expected to be served in that country’s five-star restaurants.

Jim Magagna of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Brad Boner of the Mountain States Lamb Cooperative both said Wyoming producers should have no problem meeting the demand of the Taiwan meat packers.

The agreement, reached after two years of negotiations, was part of some tough trade negotiations conducted by state officials in an effort to expand the market for Wyoming goods, said Doug Miyamoto, director of the state Department of Agriculture.

“That we can make and create these types of trade negotiations with foreign countries is good news for Wyoming’s producers,” he said.

‘Shootout’ challenge reflects Shoshoni’s can-do spirit

in Community/Economic development/News/Recreation
Now entering Shoshoni
2032

By Cody Beers, Cowboy State Daily

Like a challenge delivered out of the Old West, a shootout at high noon was held Saturday in Shoshoni.

Mayors of Fremont County’s towns, or their designees, met at the Shoshoni Rifle Range on the south edge of town to compete in three shooting categories – rifle, handgun and Annie Oakley shotgun-style shooting – as part of a fundraiser for the Fremont County Republican Women.

“When the Republican Women’s president, Ginger Bennett, called me, she wanted the shootout at high noon on Shoshoni’s Main Street,” said Shoshoni Mayor Joel Highsmith. “I said, ‘Anything is a possibility in Shoshoni, let’s talk about it.’”

Shoshoni Mayor Joel Highsmith exhibits a can-do attitude that characterizes his efforts to make things happen in Shoshoni.
Shoshoni Mayor Joel Highsmith exhibits a can-do attitude that characterizes his efforts to make things happen in Shoshoni. Highsmith — whose father also served as Shoshoni’s mayor — said residents care about the community and have good ideas for its future. (Photo by Cody Beers, Cowboy State Daily)

Highsmith was elected Shoshoni’s mayor in 2018. Like Saturday’s mayoral shootout, his can-do spirit is reflected throughout the 650-resident town.

It’s all about building and maintaining a community, its people and a great place to live, according to Highsmith.

“Shoshoni has always been my hometown, the place I consider my home, and the place where I always planned to retire,” Highsmith said.

Highsmith’s parents moved to Shoshoni in 1962. His wife Kathy’s parents moved to Shoshoni about 1950.

“I married my wife in 1972. That’s when we purchased our first real estate in Shoshoni. We have three beautiful daughters we raised in Shoshoni until 1989. We returned to Shoshoni in 2009,” he said. “We are Shoshoni people with Shoshoni roots.”

In fact, Highsmith’s father Joel Thomas Highsmith Sr. was mayor of Shoshoni in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Shoshoni in 2019 is a microcosm of life these days in central Wyoming. Local economies are struggling, even in Shoshoni where ConocoPhillips operates a gas plant in Lost Cabin, east of town.

Some people have left town. People make long commutes, usually through Shoshoni and the town’s famous intersection, to work in the oil and gas industry. Young people graduate out of the Shoshoni school system, and most leave. And few young people and their families live year-around in the community that boasts small-town amenities and is bordered by one of Wyoming’s best fishing reservoirs.

Boysen Reservoir, which borders Shoshoni, is a major focus for the community, with a committee considering ways to bring more people to the reservoir to take part in various activities and help revitalize the town. (Photo by Cody Beers, Cowboy State Daily)

“Besides our school system, I believe Shoshoni’s crown jewel is Boysen Reservoir,” Highsmith said.

Shoshoni also benefits from residents willing to look at ways to breathe new life into the community, the mayor said.

“People care about the future of this town and they have ideas,” he said.

The Shoshoni Town Council, or as Highsmith calls it, “the governing body,” has established a pair of committees focused on Boysen Reservoir and the rifle range.

“We are looking at different options to enhance our town. The Lake Committee has met with Boysen State Park officials and the new owners of the Boysen Marina, who are both doing a great job,” Highsmith said. “We are looking at developing more activities and fishing opportunities so that Boysen becomes more of a destination for people on their way to Jackson and other places.”

Highsmith said the goal is to bring more events to Boysen Reservoir, which in turn, will help the town. At one time, winter carnivals, high-altitude drag races, fishing derbies and other events flourished at Boysen throughout the year and brought visitors and their money to Shoshoni.

Highsmith said the same committee approach is being used to draw people to Shoshoni’s rifle range, arguably the best in the county and central Wyoming. Grants and donations have helped the local rifle club improve safety at the range through steps such as having local range enthusiasts act as monitors when the range is open.

Shoshoni continues to host a number of community events, including its Labor Day Ranch Rodeos and its annual Don Layton Memorial Antique Tractor and Engine Show.

The landscape of Shoshoni is changing for the better, too, Highsmith said.

He recalled the days when downtown Shoshoni boasted a Gambles store, grocery store and movie theater.

This photo shows some of the old buildings that line Shoshoni’s streets. The town recently demolished six old buildings on Main Street, along with a hotel and the community’s old school. Residents are now looking into ways to fill the empty space with businesses to help the town. (Photo by Cody Beers, Cowboy State Daily)

Today, some of the older, unusable buildings, including six separate buildings of the old Main Street, have been demolished, as has an old motel and the Shoshoni school in the center of town.

A new $39 million K-12 school has been built on the north end of town and is in its fourth year of operation.

The mayor said town officials are keeping an open mind to the opportunities for Shoshoni.

“We’ve been talking to the developer who bought our old school land,” Highsmith said. “We’ve been thinking and discussing, what can survive here.”

Town officials and many citizens agree Shoshoni needs an active motel/hotel and a local gathering spot, such as a café.

“That would be a big bonus for school activities and activities at the lake and rifle range,” Highsmith said. “Boysen State Park and the marina need more camper spots. Maybe we need a campground, because the lake is an important part of what we may do. Maybe our future is senior housing. We need more housing so our teachers can live here.”

The future for one of Wyoming’s busiest intersections – where U.S. Highways 20 and 26 meet – is involved, too, because it’s in the middle of town. Contrary to billboards on the edges of Shoshoni proclaiming the superiority of each highway, both provide convenient and scenic pathways to Yellowstone National Park.

The main intersection in Shoshoni takes travelers north on U.S. Highway 20 to Thermopolis or west on U.S. Highway 26 to Riverton. The intersection plays a role in attempts to revive the community, with residents looking at possible ways to build up businesses in the area. (Photo by Cody Beers, Cowboy State Daily)
The main intersection in Shoshoni takes travelers north on U.S. Highway 20 to Thermopolis or west on U.S. Highway 26 to Riverton. The intersection plays a role in attempts to revive the community, with residents looking at possible ways to build up businesses in the area. (Photo by Cody Beers, Cowboy State Daily)



“There will be changes in our intersection, even possible business expansion,” Highsmith said. “Our history involves a time when there were seven gas stations, and one on each corner of our intersection.”

Highsmith said Shoshoni people want businesses that benefit the community, including its school.

“We are open to ideas, and we are looking at things,” he said.

New Shoshoni school is a bright light in town

Bruce Thoren is in his sixth year as superintendent of Fremont County School District No. 24.

Shoshoni’s school district is very rural in nature, covering nearly 2,000 square miles.

“We’ve got kids attending from Natrona County, from Missouri Valley, Hidden Valley, Burma, Riverton, Shoshoni … the valley is where the vast majority of our students live,” said Thoren.

The school provides kindergarten through 12th grade education for more than 390 students and about 25 of those live with their families in Shoshoni. A school bus also makes daily stops at Riverton’s old Kmart to serve the more than 100 Shoshoni students who live in Riverton. Other students drive themselves to town, or ride school buses.

The school district is easily the largest employer in Shoshoni, with nearly 100 part- and full-time employees.

“These employees are a big deal for the Town of Shoshoni, and I believe the new building is definitely helping the viability of the town. Without the school, quite honestly, I’d hate to see what would happen to the town,” Thoren said.

There’s history attached to Shoshoni schools, too, as the first Shoshoni School opened in 1906 with 58 children and two teachers. After its first year of operation, a new school was built to educate 134 students at a cost of $7,000. The new building allowed the first- through fourth-graders to escape the old Shoshoni jailhouse, where they were attending school.

Thoren is proud of the school district’s ongoing partnership with the town.

“Things are headed in the right direction in Shoshoni, and the town council and mayor are looking to increase the viability of the town. Everyone wants to put the nicer things in place, including more paved streets,” Thoren said. “While most of the school employees and the Conoco gas plant employees commute from other places to work, a lot of those people would live in Shoshoni if we are able to get some of these community upgrades completed.”

Thoren points to future oil and gas development, including the Moneta Divide project, as possible boosts to the Shoshoni-area economy.

The Shoshoni Recreation District is part of the school district’s partnership with the town.

“This is a small Wyoming town, but it’s thriving with recreation,” said Recreation Director Michelle Rambo, who herself attended Shoshoni schools for 13 years.

The recreation district is currently preparing for its annual Halloween haunted house involving the efforts of more than 30 volunteers. It’s said to be one of the creepiest and best of its kind in Wyoming.

“People come to Shoshoni from all over the region to participate. It’s a huge event,” Rambo said.

Rambo, like the mayor and school superintendent, is positive about the future of Shoshoni, a community grounded in volunteerism “that works together to do what’s best for all of Wyoming.”

“My childhood friends live here, raising their families. We are all part of this community. We support our town,” Rambo said, adding a statement of her pride for Shoshoni schools and the mascot. “We ‘Ride for the Brand, be a Wrangler.’”

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.”

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