CHEYENNE – Before Wyoming can achieve its long-sought-after goal of diversifying its economy, it must first overcome a variety of barriers.
As part of the ENDOW Initiative Executive Council’s first meetings Thursday and Friday at Laramie County Community College, the group identified a number of those potential impediments to growth. It also assigned committees to tackle the problems.
Gov. Matt Mead signed the ENDOW Initiative bill into law in March after it was passed by the Wyoming Legislature during this year’s session. The bill created an executive council with 15 voting members and other non-voting members.
The council’s objective is to oversee the development and implementation of a blueprint for economic diversification in Wyoming through the next 20 years.
The voting members represent various business interests around the state, and the ex-officio members are state legislators.
The council’s task of building on existing industries and creating new ones is critical to the state’s future, said Wyoming Business Council President and Council Member Bill Schilling.
After taking a stark look at some of Wyoming’s socioeconomic data through the meeting’s two days, Schilling said he is convinced of the need for economic diversification.
“It’s a necessity,” he said. “The data is startling and must be dealt with, and we must go forward.”
On Friday, the council broke into three groups to identify a slew of barriers to achieving its goals. Council co-Chairman Greg Hill said it was a critical part of the group’s first steps.
“This starts with the premise that unless you break some of these barriers, the rest doesn’t matter,” he said. “These grandiose ideas are fantastic, but if you don’t break the barriers, forget it.”
While there was some variation on how they defined those barriers, Hill said he found a lot of commonality among the ideas. Some of them included: building a qualified workforce; developing transportation and infrastructure; improving the quality of life in Wyoming communities; and working with policymakers and residents averse to change.
“What we’d like to do is get some subgroups that are willing to work on these barriers, thinking about some more specifics, and also what actionable things could be done to break through some of those barriers,” Hill said.
Staffers from state agencies and departments, including the Wyoming Business Council and the governor’s office, are expected to help ENDOW council members figure out how to address identified barriers.
Mead tasked the council with producing a preliminary report by Aug. 30. Before then, Hill said he expects the council will meet two more times. At its next yet-to-be scheduled meeting, he said the subgroups would produce reports to present to the council.
“What we’re trying to do is formulate an action plan on some of those areas,” Hill said. “The reason those are kind of upfront is those are maybe the tougher nuts to crack and probably are going to require more thought. It’s easy to generate business growth. It’s a lot harder to think about those difficult issues.”
Diversifying the state’s economy is an enormous, risk-filled task with a complicated cross-section of factors, Hill said. Identifying the barriers to diversification is one small piece of that effort.
“I’ve done a lot of really hard projects in my life, and I think you can get overwhelmed with saying, ‘I’m going to eat an elephant,’” Hill said. “But the important thing is you take one bite at a time. … I think what’s missing in all this is a strategy and plans. Everybody in every community has their ideas on what economic diversification is, and that’s important, but then there’s this overarching framework, plan and strategy at the state level that guides.”
A final report is due in August 2018, recommending the next steps for the initiative. Included in those recommendations will be policy measures, likely leading to requests for state funds for different projects.
Mead has expressed confidence in his initiative lasting where others have failed. But the real test is likely the Wyoming Legislature’s 2019 session, where lawmakers will likely be asked to vote on measures that would support economic diversification plans from the ENDOW council.
Hill said he knows there will be some in the Legislature that won’t support all of the council’s requests. But with Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper, and Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, as ex-officio members, he said he’s thinking legislative leaders could help convince their colleagues the initiative is worth their votes. It would also be up to the council to reach out to legislators to make their case, he said.
“Everybody knows the problem,” he said. “Everyone understands Wyoming has to diversify its economy. We need to come up with a good plan and stay involved in engagement with the communities. Legislators get elected, so if we do a good job of informing people of the problems and solutions, then it’s going to be hard for a legislator to say, ‘I don’t agree with that.’ That’s going to be a big part of what we do.”