Far be it for me to refer to Wyoming as a “hole,” but that was the unique position our state held during the worst bust in its history.
During the 1980s and 1990s, our state languished as the rest of the Rocky Mountain states thrived. The syndrome was referred to as “the donut hole.” The states around Wyoming make up the donut and our state, located in the middle, being the “hole.”
This economic situation was blamed on our state’s singular reliance on energy commodities, leading to countless calls for Wyoming to diversify. These other states all grew during those decades while our state lost jobs and state revenues plummeted. Our economy was stagnant. There were few successes. This was also the time when a chunk of our working middle class gave up and headed to more friendly economic climes.
The Democratic Party took a hit during this time as a lot of union members left. The Democrats never really recovered from that exodus, but that is another story for another time.
Following that bust, we boomed from 2002 to 2014 as coal surged and oil and gas boomed. I recall, in 2013, a long-time banker in Casper saying our economy was the best he had ever seen – perhaps the best ever. But it did not last long. Now the state has fallen into a near-bust situation, which was graphically pointed out in a widely circulated article in the Washington Post recently.
That article stated that Idaho was the fastest-growing state in the country in 2017 and Wyoming was the slowest, finishing last. This prompted pundits and concerned citizens alike to question what we were doing wrong and what on earth were our neighboring potato-heads doing that was right?
The numbers, in reality, were not spectacular. Idaho grew 2.2 percent and Wyoming dropped 1.0 percent. When ranked against the other states and District of Columbia, we look terrible and Idaho looks brilliant.
I emailed this story to some of the smartest people in the state and here are some of their replies:
Recently retired CEO of the Wyoming Business Alliance Bill Schilling chimed in:
“1. Idaho has a busy city—Boise—as state capital, good airport, university in downtown area and several Fortune 500 companies and strong corporate giving. Boise downtown has vibrancy and that has been a steady progression over past 30 years; Coeur d’Alene is their Jackson, but not to our scale. Nearby Spokane feeds it and nearby lakes provide recreation and tourism year round. An impressive inclusiveness reach from Boise to the rest of the state.”
“2. A steady Ag base due to Snake River irrigation—potato farming.
“3. In the panhandle there is great scenery, skiing in winter and hiking/boating in the summer, along with big spender income in Coeur d’Alene.
“4. Less severe weather. You don’t hear about interstate closures like Interstate 80 here. Boise gets about 60 days more milder weather than Cheyenne.”
Former long-time Wyomingite Bart Smith, who is currently publisher of the Greeley Tribune, says: “It’s no surprise that resource-dependent states ride that wave up and down and have for many, many years. I’m sure a few years ago as oil boomed and coal was strong that Wyoming was one of the fastest growing states and all politicians took credit.
“I guess my main thought is this is nothing new at all — it has been the case for decades, and a Washington Post writer just now discovered it. That’s my take anyway!”
Cody Beers of Riverton says: “Having just driven through Idaho going to and from the Idaho Potato Bowl, this story hit the media during the trip.
“Bottom line, our economy is very reliant on minerals, and Idaho is much closer to the West Coast and Utah. Boise has had large numbers of people move in from California, and this has occurred in the northwest corner of the state, too. It’s cold (here) in the winter and the wind blows, too.
“We spent time with friends in Pocatello. They like Wyoming, but they love Idaho. Utah is close, and the other reasons (health care, shopping, etc.).
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and the people I talk to about Wyoming love coming here to visit. They just don’t think Wyoming has much to offer, such as shopping, hospitals, restaurants, etc. Borrowing from the movie Wind River, Wyoming is ‘the land of no backup.’”
(This ends part 1 on this serious topic. Check this space soon for part 2.)