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Wyoming Innovation Center Breaks Ground in Gillette

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By Mark Christensen, County 17
This story republished with permission

On a shale covered site north of Gillette, Energy Capital Economic Development (ECED) broke ground yesterday on what it hopes will be the global center of research for coal-based products.

The Wyoming Innovation Center is a $3.48 million facility focused on the development of high-value, non-fuel, coal-based processes and products, according to materials from ECED. Its ECED, Campbell County, and the City of Gillette’s first major capital investment as part of the “Carbon Valley” ecosystem that many hope will develop new uses for Campbell County’s Powder River Basin (PRB) coal.

Thanks to federal funding from the Economic Development Administration (EDA) and the Wyoming Business Council (WBC), the local funds for the project are minimal (County 17, Jan. 21). The project secured a $1.5 million grant from the WBC (County 17, June 15, 2017) and $1.46 million from the EDA (County 17, Aug. 28, 2019). The balance is being provided by the City of Gillette, Campbell County, and private businesses.

Speaking to the importance of facilities like WyIC, ECED CEO Phil Christopherson took the opportunity to praise former WBC Regional Representative Dave Spencer, who had the initial idea for what would become WyIC. At the time of its conception five years ago, Spencer and Christopherson were meeting with companies who were looking to place pilot plants and prove up their technology.

One of those companies, TerraPower, has received a lot of attention recently as they announced the Natrium Reactor to be built in Wyoming (County 17, June 3). At the time, TerraPower, like many of the companies, indicated that if there was a place that they could setup and build a pilot plant, they would be there.

“That was the genesis for the idea behind the Wyoming Innovation Center. Let’s build a place where that technology can be taken out of the lab and put to practical use, so we can extend the life of our coal mines, find alternate uses for coal, and use that as a raw material for manufacturing plants,” Christopherson said.

Mike Easley, CEO of Powder River Energy Corporation (PRECorp), and a member of the Wyoming Business Council, recognized how unique Campbell County and Wyoming are.

“It would have been so easy many years ago to assume the role of victim, find a persecutor, look for a rescuer and go in that kind of mode, but instead, because of leadership we have had, […] we have assumed the role of a creator and we are making things happen here,” Easley said.

Easley noted the support of power cooperatives like PRECorp, Basin Electric Power Cooperative (who supplies power to PRECorp), and Tri-State in innovation and their contributions towards projects like the Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC) (County 17, May 17, 2018).

Through the concept of the Carbon Valley, Easley believes Campbell County and the state can push back against the forces fighting coal.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon was pleased to see the project come to fruition and reminisced about past conversations looking to develop partnerships for new technology and new products based upon Wyoming’s abundant coal resources. Gordon noted it had been nearly a decade since those initial conversations.

At the time, Gordon saw an opportunity “Where we could develop the kind of carbon fiber technology that could eventually mean we would be manufacturing componentry for Boeing planes. Instead of fighting with Washington, maybe we would be working together to really move our country forward.”

After those conversations, Gordon sat down with sovereign wealth funds and asked, “How are we going to invest in our future? How are we going to make sure that not only our country goes forward, but that our world goes forward and understands there are opportunities for technology?” Gordon’s questions were in the context of coal and fossil fuels.

More Atlas Carbons

The goal of WyIC is more Atlas Carbons. Atlas Carbon takes PRB coal and converts it to activated carbon, a significantly higher value product with a growing market.

With requests for state money, Gordon said, “Normally people show up and say, ‘You need to give us all this money and we’ll promise you a great project.’ But instead, Atlas, and Jim Ford, said ‘Here’s what we’ve done. We cowboyed some engineering together. We bought some used equipment. We made it work. That’s what us ranchers know how to do. And it’s working and its coming to fruition and its growing.”

Atlas Carbon, who’s site is just north of WyIC, is now producing a valuable product using PRB coal, and though they did receive state funding to scale up their operations, they made it work first and proved up their technology. The work at WyIC is all about proving-up technology.

“It’s time. It’s time that America starts selling energy and technology and the future to our friends instead of trying to buy it from our enemies,” Gordon said, while noting that most rare earth elements come from China and uranium is often sourced from Russia.

Though yesterday’s announcement was about developing new uses for PRB coal, Gordon drew attention to the importance of coal and base-load power as the nation focuses on decarbonizing, noting that renewables aren’t the only answer for energy in a carbon-neutral world. Citing rolling blackouts in California, the recent generation issues in Texas, and the need for power from coal during national emergencies like Hurricane Katrina, Gordon said there is still a place for coal.

“[Coal] is our most abundant and readily available energy source, but we can use it for so much more – and that’s what the innovation center is about and the research we are doing here, […] that the City of Gillette will benefit from, and the international recognition that you are getting here is just extraordinary,” Gordon said.

“Gillette is the center of where innovation is going to come from that will lead this nation forward. Make us energy independent and truly drive us into a great new world,” the governor added.

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Cody Businesses Offer Double Minimum Wage, Free Housing To Get Workers

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

“Now Hiring” signs are everywhere in Cody. And while businesses in tourist towns seem to go through the same struggle every year to find workers, this year is especially difficult, according to employers.

Tracey Locke, the manager of Cody’s Boot Barn, said working with insufficient staff is a regular problem right now.

“We’re open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, so we have a lot of business coming in and out,” she said. “Yesterday was busier than we expected, and we were short staffed for the day.”

Locke said it has been difficult just to get people to turn in applications, let alone accept a job offer.

“I mean, if we can get them in the door and talk about the commissions and stuff, we might get them,” she said. “But I’ve had people schedule interviews, and then not even show up for interviews.”

Brenda O’Shea and her husband own and operate A Western Rose Motel, just a block from downtown Cody. She said the extra unemployment benefits that are currently being offered by the federal government are a big hinderance to getting local workers to apply.

“I’ve had two girls apply (who have asked), ‘Are you going to pay me under the table?’ ‘Why would I do that?’ ‘Because it’s going to affect my benefits if I make too much money.’”

The labor shortage is putting a strain on many local businesses, which in turn is affecting consumers.

“Dairy Queen has closed their lobby, Wendy’s is closing their lobby,” O’Shea said.

In an effort to entice workers, employers are offering unique benefits.

Some are advertising starting wages at $15 per hour or more. Some are offering signing bonuses. For small businesses like A Western Rose Motel, though, that kind of compensation isn’t realistic – so they offer other benefits.

“I provide free housing,” O’Shea said. “I have a two-bedroom home, no rent, (and I pay) $500 a week each.”

For Boot Barn, it’s the employee discount that can give help lure workers, according to Locke.

“We can’t compete with the $15 an hour, but our employee discount program that we have in here is top notch,” she said. “Like, we get 40% to 50% of our products off the retail cost. So that seems to be a huge benefit if you wear western clothing.”

But it’s not just the lack of local workers that’s affecting local businesses — it’s also the inability to hire workers from other countries.

O’Shea said their hotel has relied on foreign exchange students from China in years past, but not this year.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Cody, Wyoming, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Jersey Shore – it doesn’t matter,” she said. “Very few people are getting foreign exchange students.”

With those potential workers unable to travel to the U.S. this year because of coronavirus restrictions, O’Shea and two other employees are doing the work that eight or nine people have done in the past.

“I no longer live in my house, I live in a motel room,” she said, “because obviously my co-workers need days off, and when you own your own business you get to work all the time, and everyone’s experiencing that right now.”

Locke is in the same situation at the retail store. She said she is working extra hours just to keep the doors open.

“This week alone I hit 40 hours yesterday morning,” she said. “So, I worked a 12-hour day yesterday, and then I’m going to work a 12-hour day today.”

Locke is optimistic, though, that as the summer continues and employment benefits return to pre-pandemic rules, more people will be going back to work.

“I think we’re all crossing our fingers and hoping, like, mid-June, last part of June, when that unemployment changes, that we’ll see an uptick in applications, hopefully.”

“I mean, we’re just at the beginning of the tunnel, it hasn’t even really begun yet,” O’Shea said. “And we know that we have a short amount of time to make a year’s worth of income, so we’re trying our best. We’ll get through it.”

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Postage Stamps to Increase to 58 Cents in August

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

The cost of sending a letter from Meeteetse to Wamsutter is going to cost a bit more starting in August.

The U.S. Postal Service announced on Friday that the cost of a postage stamp is going up again. This time it’s a 7% increase going from 55 cents to 58 cents.

And, of course, this affects more than just residents of Meeteetse or Wamsutter. It’s an increase for everyone who still uses the Postal Service.

While most people have switched over to the Internet to pay bills, 18% of Americans still use the physical mailbox to pay up monthly debts like credit cards, rent payments, or monthly subscriptions.

The reason? Same thing the Postal Service has said for years: they’re losing billions of dollars because fewer people are paying for the service.

Mail volume has declined 47% over the last 10 years. Meanwhile, service has become markedly worse.

According to a report from the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia, only 78% of first-class mail was delivered on time from January through March of 2021 — which is a decrease from 92% from the same time a year ago.

“It’s disappointing, and it’s quite low by historic standards,” a spokesman for the think tank told CBS News. “It means a lot of stuff isn’t getting delivered on time. I would pay your credit card at least a week before it’s due. It means if you are expecting rent checks or have to pay a rent check, you better give yourself some extra time.”

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Wyoming Wood Prices Soar Due to COVID, Labor Problems

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

There are some things we definitely take for granted in our society – for example, construction projects. Many of us just assume we can go to the lumber yard, get the supplies we need, and build whatever we have in mind.

But what happens when those supplies just aren’t available?

Right now, lumber is hard to come by. And when it can be found, it isn’t cheap.

“Our (plywood) with all of our sheet goods have gone exponentially higher – like eight times higher, and our dimensional lumber has over doubled in price,” said Matt Scott, a contractor in Cody. “But it’s also availability of goods.”

Ken Gould, a sales associate at Knecht Home Center in Sheridan, said the price for standard plywood — also known as oriented strand board or OSB (standard plywood) — is over five times what it cost just six months ago.

“Your cost of OSB right now is, $66.78 for 7/16 OSB sheeting,” Gould said. “Six months ago it was around $13 or $14.”

And the reason behind the price hike? Simple supply and demand, he said.

“The supply is not there,” Gould said. 

Right now, the OSB is coming from places like Michigan, or other suppliers back east, Gould said. But that’s not where the lumber came from before the coronavirus hit.

“Most of your OSB would come out of Canada, but Canada is closed,” he said. 

But it’s not just about border issues. Labor plays a big part, according to Gould.

“I was told this morning that there’s lots of lumber out there to be grabbed and brought in, but they can’t get trucks,” he said. 

For Scott, the shortage affects his bottom line as well – and his schedule.

“With the price being so high, no lumberyard wants to stock a whole lot of lumber right now, because they’re not wanting to put a whole lot of money into inventory,” he said. “So that slows our turnover down, and there’s a lot more time lagging with the supply chain. We’ve run into a lot of issues with our windows and door manufacturers just because they went to half staff during this whole deal.”

Scott put most of the blame for the shortages in lumber and other construction goods on the pandemic and other natural disasters in recent months.

“Our drywall has doubled in price because they’re shipping a lot of it down to Texas to repair all the damage that was done this spring,” he said, referring to the cold snap that caused pipes to freeze and burst. “And our PVC pipe is in short demand.”

The supply issues have caused Scott to change the way he schedules upcoming jobs.

“I’m at a point where I’m so tired of trying to play this catch up game,” he said. “We just had to kind of tell people we can’t take any more work at this time, partially because it’s right now it’s too hard to schedule that far out.”

Gould said from his perspective, a large part of the issue is political. He said he feels that the labor shortage is tied to higher unemployment benefits, which discourage potential employees from going back to work.

“I ordered one man an earth auger, to drill holes in the ground,” he said. “And (the seller) told me it was backordered until October. She told me that they don’t have enough workers in the factory to produce what people are purchasing. And why would they want to work? When they can make $1,600 on unemployment?”

‘It’s frustrating,” Scott said. “It adds a whole other level of stress that isn’t normally there. But we’ve got to figure out how to work through this and deal with it.”

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Wyoming Lost More Than 16,000 Jobs In 2020

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming lost more than 16,000 jobs in 2020, according to state figures.

A report from the state Department of Workforce Services showed that between the fourth quarter of 2019 and 2020, the number of people employed in the state fell by 6%, from 276,508 to 259,937.

The figures are included in a preliminary employment report prepared by the DWS Research and Planning Division.

Employment in the last quarter of 2020 was an improvement over the second quarter of the year, when the number of people with jobs stood at 252,329.

By comparison, as of March, the DWS estimated state employment at 277,417.

The combined impact of coal mine closures and business closures related to the coronavirus pandemic was felt significantly in employment.

The report said most of the jobs lost, 5,900, were seen in the mining sector, while the leisure and hospitality industry lost 3,300 jobs over the one-year period. Construction jobs also fell by 2,750 from the last quarter of 2019.

However, the retail trade sector added 700 jobs from the final quarter of 2019.

The report also said that during the final quarter of the year, the state’s total payroll dropped by 1.7% from the fourth quarter of 2019 to total almost $3.6 billion. However, the payroll seen in the last quarter of the year was higher than what was seen in the second quarter, when the total fell to $3.1 billion.

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Report: Slow Rebound In Wyoming’s Economy Continued In Last Quarter Of 2020

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s economy continued its rebound in the fourth quarter of 2020, with slight gains seen in employment, personal income and the housing market.

However, the gains in most of those areas remained below what was seen prior to 2020, according to the state Department of Administration and Information.

“Wyoming’s economy continued to rebound in the fourth quarter, similar to the U.S. average,” the department said in its regular economic summary for the fourth quarter of last year.

The report said while Wyoming’s unemployment rate improved in the last quarter of the year to 5.3%, the number of jobs dropped from the last quarter of 2019, with 17,730 jobs being lost, a decline in employment figures of 6.1%.

Similarly, personal income grew in the last quarter of 2020, but very slowly, the report said.

“Wyoming’s total personal income grew 0.4% in the fourth quarter of 2020 from the previous year, the slowest growth since the first quarter of 2017,” the report said.

At the same time, the personal income nationally increased by an average of 4%, the report said.

Home prices also increased during the year by 8.4%, the report said, compared to a national average of 10.8%.

More homes were also built in the last quarter of 2020 over 2019, with the number of permits issued increasing by 21.5% over last year.

However, the report predicted a cooling in the housing market in the near future because of rising prices and mortgage rates.

“Indeed, there are signs that show some softness in (the) housing market such as new home sales and mortgage applications,” it said.

Tourism also increased significantly in the last quarter of the year over 2019, the report said, with Yellowstone National Park reporting a 94.2% increase in visitation and Grand Teton National Park’s visitation growing by 67.1%.

While the added visits helped generate economic activity in some areas, they did not do a lot to bring the full state’s tourism industry out of the slump it saw in 2020, the report said.

“Lodging sales for the fourth quarter were 35.4% higher than a year ago in Teton County, but were down 3.2% for the state as a whole,” it said.

Taxable sales also declined statewide by about 9.3% from the last quarter of 2019, the report said, but most of the decline could be traced to a lack of purchases by the mining industry.

“The mining industry (including oil and gas extraction) contracted substantially, at -63.1%, due to declining sales of equipment, supplies and services from energy exploration and production activity,” the report said. “This was one of the largest year-over-year drops in Wyoming’s history.”

Sales by the state’s retail trade industry grew by 2.7% over last year and the wholesale trade industry saw growth of 17.6% during the year, the report said, largely because of increased activity in the state’s wind energy industry.

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Wyoming’s Economic Health Improving; Projections Grow By $82 Million

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The state’s top financial experts had some good news for Wyoming legislators as they headed into their one-day legislative opening session Tuesday, with forecasts for income for the state’s next two years improving slightly.

Income estimates for the state for fiscal 2021 through 2022 — which began on July 1 and will end on June 30, 2022 — grew by $82 million over projections made in October by the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group.

The CREG is a group of top financial experts from across state government who regularly assess what the state’s revenues will look like going forward. The group’s latest report was issued Tuesday as legislators gathered virtually for a one-day session that would be followed up later in the year by more extensive meetings to tackle legislation.

CREG estimated in May that the state could face shortfalls of $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion in funding for both general government operations and education, prompting Gov. Mark Gordon to cut state spending by $250 million and propose another $500 million in cuts in his supplemental budget now being studied by lawmakers.

The bulk of the shortfall was blamed on reduced coal production in the state and losses in sales taxes blamed on the coronavirus.

However, in the report issued Tuesday, the CREG said it has adjusted its sales tax income upward by about $32.2 million over projections made in October.

The report said although sales taxes income remains substantially lower than what was seen in fiscal 2020, the drop is not as severe as what had earlier been forecast.

The improved outlook is the result of federal coronavirus assistance funds still flowing into local economies, the second round of federal stimulus payments being sent to taxpayers, slight improvements in sales taxes generated by oil and natural gas drilling and sales taxes from the construction of wind power projects, the report said.

At the same time, the CREG increased its forecast for mineral severance taxes over the biennium by $18.7 million, due largely to a slight boost in estimated oil production over the next two years.

The group’s forecast for federal mineral royalties also increased by $11.6 million, while investment income was forecast to grow by $19.7 million over earlier projections.

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