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Backwards

Co-owner Amber Pollock, center, works behind the bar in May at Backwards Distilling Company's tasting room in downtown Casper. State leaders hope to encourage more business development by young people in Wyoming.

For decades, Wyoming has had a youth problem.

It’s been a well-documented trend that, for years, the state’s young people have been leaving in droves, unable to find suitable jobs or opportunities to make a living in the place that raised them.

It’s a problem that groups like the Wyoming Business Council and the state’s economic development initiative, Endow, have come to recognize as critical to diversifying the state’s economy, particularly as Wyoming’s population grows older and revenues from traditional sources like coal decline.

Last fall, the state released its plan to break the pattern, unleashing a 20-year plan to break the boom-and-bust cycle through a mix of education, opportunity and community development. And the voices of the state’s youngest leaders were a critical part.

When the young leaders of ENGAGE – the arm of ENDOW aimed at 18- to 35-year-olds – met for the first time last summer, few expected the level of enthusiasm ultimately exhibited for their efforts, much less for an event planned over the course of just a few months. However, last year’s summit attracted roughly 200 people from all around the state, each there to lend their voices to what would become the final version of former Gov. Matt Mead’s wide-ranging plan to right the state’s economy.

But the meeting was also aspirational, designed to gauge their wants and needs as well as their perceptions on what Wyoming was lacking for millennials and members of Gen Z alike, whether it was an appropriate level of resources or a barrier to accessing the opportunities needed to gain footing in Wyoming’s economy.

The report is finished and the next stage of the vision is being set. But for ENGAGE – which is hosting its second such summit in Casper next Saturday at the Yellowstone Garage – the focus is on maintaining the momentum they’d already built.

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While organizations like ENDOW and the Wyoming Business Council are more structured in their approach to economic diversification, ENGAGE is more decentralized, designed more as a loosely-organized collective of support for young, like-minded Wyomingites looking to forge opportunities for themselves and improve the communities they grew up in, whether they’re civic, professional, or social.

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“We see ENGAGE as a movement,” said Allison Connell, chief of planning for the group. “It’s not something where anyone should feel permission to come and ask us to do anything – we really want to be the support behind somebody else out there who wants to do something on their own. They don’t need someone to ask or to tell them when and where they should. We want all individuals throughout Wyoming to feel empowered to ask those questions, put on those events, start that business. We just want to be the resource to support and encourage that.”

Next Saturday’s summit, Connell said, should aid in establishing those expectations. Throughout the day, panel discussions on everything from the principles of entrepreneurship to grant writing and establishing local food systems will be held, offering Wyoming’s young people a blueprint to retrofit the state’s communities.

“It’s hard to know everything,” said Connell. “You have so many state entities and private entities, all of whom have their own opportunities or options out there to get help. We want to bring that in.”

Most importantly, ENGAGE seeks to provide them with the tools and networks to do so on their own terms.

“Economic diversification is not just about bringing in new business, or different business, or more business,” said Connell. “This is really a chance to take a holistic look, and ask how do we as a community bring all of these things together and encourage people to go out and make these differences.”

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Follow politics reporter Nick Reynolds on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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