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Wyoming Association of Municipalities

Wyoming residents look to themselves to boost business, populations

in Economic development/News/Business
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.

Controversial hiring freeze for Cheyenne scrapped

in Economic development/News/Criminal justice
Downtown Development Authority
1473

By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

CHEYENNE – A controversial proposal to enact a temporary hiring freeze in the city’s $56 million budget for Fiscal Year 2020 was eliminated upon third and final reading before the Cheyenne City Council’s Committee of the Whole on Wednesday evening.

The hiring freeze, which had been proposed by Councilman Dicky Shanor as part of a larger amendment that was approved unanimously the previous week, sparked criticism on social media from Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak. Kozak contended that a hiring freeze would leave CPD understaffed by more than two dozen officers, which would in turn require CPD to suspend previously scheduled training and reassign the public information officer and half of the department’s school resources officers to the patrol division in order to maintain general public safety.

Shanor said in interviews he was concerned with “the politicization of law enforcement” he felt was evidenced by Kozak’s statement, which singled out Shanor by name. That prompted Mayor Marian Orr to defend the chief, characterizing his statements as advocacy for the public’s right to know how a hiring freeze could impact their safety.

Despite the rancor, however, Wednesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting – the nine councilmen minus the mayor – was relatively quick and quiet, as was the decision to scrap the hiring freeze altogether via an amendment. Even so, Council President Rocky Case noted early on that the large public turnout he and other council members expected as a result of the hiring freeze debate had not materialized. Only two members of the public chose to speak, including Stephanie Lowe, president of the Cheyenne Public Employees Association, who asked the committee to reconsider its recommendation to cap the total number of city employees for fiscal year 2020 at 578.1 positions, and instead give department directors the leeway to hire as needed, provided they have the budget and data to support each position.

“Staff have created a great plan for the city and I’m concerned about crippling departments that may prevent important work from getting done,” Lowe said. “Let’s not all forget the growing size of our community, which needs a growing workforce to keep up with maintenance at the least, but also to keep attracting new businesses and residents to work here.”

But with the hiring freeze lifted, committee members opted to leave the employee cap in place. Instead, a portion of the funds that would have been saved by the hiring freeze will instead be made up through $100,000 in reversions – budgeted funds that go unspent and return to city reserves – anticipated  at the end of FY 2019.

Committee members also heard from local physician Dr. Jasper “J.J.” Chen, who argued against cutting funds from the Cheyenne Downtown Development Authority, suggesting that the city instead define clear outcomes it wants to see from the DDA, then track its progress to determine future funding.

“We should do this instead of making the more dramatic and drastic decisions to take away a substantial portion of the DDA’s funding without empirical data justifying doing so,” Chen said. 

Mayor Orr’s initial budget proposal allocated just $100,000 for the DDA, down from $390,000 this year and $450,499 the previous fiscal year. But once amendment markups were concluded Wednesday, the DDA was ultimately budgeted for $290,000 for FY 2020, while the Cheyenne Animal Shelter will receive an additional $107,500, for a total budget of $612,500.

Committee members also rejected an amendment proposed by Ward III Councilman Ken Esquibel that would have cut Cheyenne’s $50,000 annual membership in the Wyoming Association of Municipalities. Esquibel argued that, with a citizen legislature only in session a maximum of 60 days in a year, WAM’s lobbying efforts were costing Cheyenne $1,666 per day, even as local legislators generally vote in the city’s interests. 

“We’re basically throwing $50,000 into the wind,” he said. 

Committee member Mark Rinne pointed out that Mayor Orr is going to be on the Resolutions Committee for WAM this year, and that the organization recently gained a new director in J. David Fraser.

He added that council members had previously discussed the need to participate in more WAM events, and Esquibel’s amendment ultimately failed, with Esquibel himself the only affirmative vote.

With Wednesday’s amendments thus dispensed with, the latest incarnation of the city’s FY 2020 budget will come before the full City Council for final approval at 6 p.m. Monday, June 10.

Legislator to proceed with effort to ban ‘sanctuary cities.’

in News/immigration
Sanctuary cities
1421

By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

CHEYENNE – A Casper legislator said he intends to continue his efforts to ban sanctuary cities in the state as momentum behind the issue continues to build amid the crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Although no cities in Wyoming identify themselves as sanctuary cities, Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, said the prohibition he seeks needs to be spelled out as a part of state law.

“I think laws should be followed. I don’t want sanctuary cities here in Wyoming,” Gray said. “The people of Wyoming want us to get ahead of this and ban sanctuary cities; that’s what’s going to help us be successful.”

This month, Florida became the most recent state to pass legislation seeking to ban sanctuary cities – those cities where law enforcement agencies and local governments limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

It’s the latest development in a growing movement among states seeking to go on the record as opposing policies adopted by some cities and counties to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation or family separation by Immigrations and Custom Enforcement. 

The modern notion of sanctuary cities dates back to 1989, when San Francisco passed a “City and County of Refuge” ordinance blocking city employees from using city resources to assist federal enforcement of immigration law except for some legally-mandated situations. With Florida’s action, 12 states have now passed laws seeking to prohibit or discourage local adoption of sanctuary city policies, and the National Conference of State Legislatures counts at least 21 other state legislatures considering similar legislation in the near- to mid-future.

Wyoming has been on that latter list for several years now, with the most recent effort to curb sanctuary cities being spearheaded by Gray. 

“My bill would ban sanctuary cities in state statute and prevent any state funds from going to sanctuary cities,” he said. “I wrote it myself; it’s not based on any model legislation. But I think it’s comparable (to bans passed by other states).”

Gray’s first attempt at introducing a bill to block sanctuary cities during the 2018 budget session failed to get the two-thirds vote needed for introduction. This year, his bill’s latest incarnation, House Bill 151, didn’t face that hurdle and made it out of the House Corporations Committee on a 5-4 vote, only to be defeated in the House by a vote of 22 to 36.

Gray said he was “disturbed” by that vote, stressing that while Wyoming doesn’t presently have any sanctuary city policies in place — Jackson was erroneously listed as one back in 2010 — there’s no good reason to leave that option on the table.

Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, said his association’s members largely consider the issue a moot point given the lack of any meaningful push for sanctuary city policies in Wyoming. His bigger concern, he said, would be if the Legislature were to try to prohibit local law enforcement from cooperating with the feds.

“If they said ‘let’s do the opposite’ and they create a sanctuary law saying we couldn’t cooperate with the fed, we would be diametrically opposed to that,” Oedekoven said. “By virtue of our position and oath of office, we want to uphold the law; and the law is, if you have a warrant for the guy and he’s supposed to be arrested, we would want to see him arrested.”

Dave Fraser, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, said his group took a “monitor” position on Gray’s bill in the previous session – effectively a neutral stance – also citing the lack of any real sanctuary city push among WAM’s membership. That said, Fraser expects the bill, or rather its potential successor, may get some attention at WAM’s annual membership convention next month in Sheridan.

“I’m aware of this as a national issue and I understand that some of our state representatives may want to take positions on that; but for our part, I’m not sure we would object to such legislation if none of our cities intended to go that route,” Fraser said. “If our cities were contemplating it, that would influence how active we would be on taking a position on that.”

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