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National index ranks Wyoming economy last in nation

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Year in Photos

A room in the historic Plains Hotel overlooks Lincolnway on Jan. 13, 2015 in downtown Cheyenne. The Cheyenne Depot is seen at center left.

A few weeks ago, the city of Cheyenne was courting a company. The advantages that businesses consider — transportation, cost of living and infrastructure — were all sufficiently appealing. However, the company eventually pulled out, citing one reason: Wyoming’s capital city didn’t have the workforce.

A national publication recently ranked Wyoming’s economy last in the U.S. due to its heavy reliance on energy. But the state also took a hit because of its lack of a metropolitan hub. Cities have experienced the bulk of the nation’s economic growth in recent years.

The Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States Index ranked the economies of the 50 states since the beginning and the end of the recession: 2007 and 2009, respectively.

The index considers home values, employment and income as well as the stock prices of state companies.

Aside from a Bloomberg columnist’s tongue-in-cheek reference to Wyomingites as Wyomans, the details of the index will ring true to most in the state.

“Wyoming has a lot of strengths, and our natural resources obviously is at the top of that list,” said Randy Bruns, CEO of Cheyenne LEADS, an economic development organization. “But population, or the lack thereof, definitely presents some real challenges to us in diversifying the economy.”

In recent years the downturn in oil, gas and coal has had a devastating effect on the state’s revenue. Taxes from those sectors provide the lion’s share of the state budget. Lawmakers made widespread cuts last year as a result of the downturn. Further reductions followed the session, and recently Gov. Matt Mead warned of the likelihood of further declines in revenue for years to come.

However, the Bloomberg index shows the importance of metropolitan areas to overall economic health. As in the case of the company that ditched Cheyenne for northern Colorado, workforce is a big part of the challenge for Wyoming, said Anja Bendel, director of business development for LEADS.

“It comes down to a sheer numbers factor,” she said. “When you look at what our unemployment rate is and you figure out how many people that means, you’re just talking about 2,000 people in the greater Cheyenne community that are actively seeking work, and Cheyenne is the largest city in the state.”

Demographics also challenge Wyoming.

“The trend that is happening in a lot of metropolitan areas is their populations are starting to turn around and get younger, while rural populations (like those of Wyoming) continue to age,” Bruns said.

It’s also about the appeal of city living and amenities.

About 20 percent of Cheyenne’s labor force lives in the two Colorado counties across the border, where cities like Fort Collins offer the lifestyle that many young professionals desire, he added.

Of course, the people of Wyoming are likely to say they prefer to avoid crowded areas in favor of swaths of public land, sagebrush-speckled ranches and the serenity of the mountains.

But if economic diversity is important to the future of the state’s economy, people need to have a discussion about what they value, Bruns said.

Wyoming has good schools, safety and quality of life in its corner. Retaining those virtues while creating an environment for business development — a culture that helps young people want to stay in the state — will be the challenge.

An example for how to foment that growth is nearby. Years ago the business leaders of Denver focused on turning their city into a place where a young workforce could thrive, on the assumption that businesses would follow people, Bruns said.

It worked.

However, the pendulum swings both ways. The massive increase in population, congestion and traffic in areas like Denver have started to lose their appeal in some cases, he said.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner


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