Economists share bright future for Wyomings economy

·4 min read

Oct. 16—CHEYENNE — The future of Wyoming's economy may lie in an overhaul of its tourism industry, as well as a statewide move into more renewable energy.

That was one of the takeaways from an Economic Forecast Brunch hosted Friday by DAPCPA and the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce at the Blue Community Events Center. The event was designed to review economic conditions in Cheyenne and the rest of the state, and provide predictions of where the future of the economy lies.

"The economy that you have built in our community has recovered better, looks better economically than many communities across this country, and we should be very, very proud of ourselves for doing that," Dale Steenbergen, president and chief executive officer of the Cheyenne Chamber, said in his introduction.

But there is still room to improve, he said.

Anne Alexander, Vice Provost of Strategic Planning and Initiatives at the University of Wyoming, and Peter Evangelakis, Vice President of Economics & Consulting with REMI, each presented recaps of Wyoming's economic infrastructure and their predictions for the future.

Both presentations covered the results of a multitude of economic challenges brought on by COVID-19.

Alexander reported figures showing that from January 2020 to January 2021, Wyoming's mining and logging industries experienced the biggest setback due to the effects of the pandemic, with production dropping 27%. Transportation and health services experienced the smallest decline, though all industries were effected to some degree.

In that same timespan, Wyoming's unemployment rate rose from 4.4% to 5.1%. By August 2020, the adjusted unemployment rate, which factors in the labor participation rate, reached 6.1%, but by August 2021, that rate had dropped to 4.9%.

There was also a significant decline in the leisure and hospitality industry from May 2020 to July 2021, while the construction industry has skyrocketed.

Coal production dropped, and is expected to continue its decline in the coming years, as has the drilling of natural gas.

The future of Wyoming comes in three opportunities: renewable energy, agriculture, and tourism — the most directly important, for now, being tourism.

Alexander structured her presentation in roughly three phases to aid in Wyoming's economic future.

Phase one, titled "Survive," emphasizes the need for an energy rebound. This included switching Wyoming's energy industry from coal, oil and natural gas to wind, green and blue hydrogen and carbon capture.

Stimulating the tourist economy also was a major focus of the talk.

Wyoming experienced less of a drop in tourism than the rest of the country. The issue isn't attracting tourists to Wyoming, it's retaining them and getting them to spend money in the state.

"We have millions of people that come to this state every year," Alexander said. "They want to go to Yellowstone, want to go to Devils Tower, they want to go to our beautiful national forests, but they are also, across the board, the cheapest tourists on the planet."

Another major focus of the presentation was the improvement of broadband internet connection across the state.

Phase two, titled "Drive," includes expanding on internet availability, strengthening the food supply chain, and, perhaps most important, retaining the workforce. Alexander made it a point to emphasize retaining University of Wyoming graduates. Currently, 70% of UW students leave the state upon graduation, she said.

To correct this, Alexander said the state must improve its "innovation industry."

"If you support even just small things, like, 'I have an invention that I made when I was a senior in my engineering design college; I don't know how to calculate it, I don't know how to monetize it, or how to capitalize on on it for a profession for myself,'" she said. "If we could get that kid the help they need... we might be able to retain those kids."

Phase three is the application of all these steps, and was titled "Thrive."

Evangelakis's portion of the event focused on the statistical side of the plan, including a discussion of how President Joe Biden's clean energy plan could help convert Wyoming over to the wind and hydrogen farming discussed in Alexander's presentation.

Evangelakis also said, during the question-and-answer portion of the event, that the statistics provided did not factor in recent discussions centered around reworking Wyoming's tax structure.

Will Carpenter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's Arts and Entertainment/Features Reporter. He can be reached by email at wcarpenter@wyomingnews.com or by phone at 307-633-3135. Follow him on Twitter @will_carp_.

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