Meeting for the first time this year, the Wyoming Business Council’s Board of Directors on Thursday had a full slate of priorities to attend to. New leaders had to be elected. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants needed to be awarded. Updates on the performance of various projects the group had funded around the state needed to be heard.
But before all that, the council had even more pressing business on its hands: figuring out what, exactly, its role was in building up Wyoming’s economy, and how the group’s objectives fit within the state’s long-term economic development scheme.
WBC Executive Director Shawn Reese was clear that there were lots of good things happening in Wyoming. In legislative sessions in 2018 and 2019, state lawmakers had made significant strides in supplying Wyomingites the tools they needed to build the economy, from initiatives to encourage the development of broadband, the founding of foreign trade markets and trade offices, and newly founded efforts to train and expand the workforce, inspire and invest in entrepreneurs and empower research.
While there seemed to be a tangible buy-in from the Legislature toward the WBC’s mission in the 2019 session, Reese said, it came coupled with doubt, primarily due to what he called a lack of a coherent strategy on how to move forward with the state’s economic development initiatives. This, he said, led to attempts by lawmakers to create legislation that was cautious and restrictive, from the creation of earmarks dictating what the council could spend its money on to notes in the supplemental budget mandating the filing of regular status reports before the organization could receive its money.
Though these efforts were for the most part unsuccessful – Gov. Mark Gordon vetoed three out of four supplemental budget amendments affecting the council during the legislative session – the group seemed on Thursday to have been put on notice that changes needed to be made.
The biggest need its members expressed? A prescribed vision for what function the council should actually serve for Wyoming, and a coherent, cohesive strategy on getting there.
“One thing that’s missing is a singular vision,” said WBC board member Jason Kintzler, the CEO of a public relations firm out of Riverton. “We’re a small state, and as a small state it feels like our economic development is this very heavy thing, where we’re pushing these boulders in different directions. And we shouldn’t be. We’re a small city. We’re 500,000 people. We shouldn’t be looking at this as 23 counties – we should be looking at a strategy for one Wyoming.”
A lack of dialogue and interaction
In Gordon’s inaugural State of the State address in January, he expressed a desire for the state’s various economic development initiatives – the Endow Council and the Wyoming Business Council among them – to have a more symbiotic, collaborative relationship with one another, rather than a redundant one.
“When it comes to the Wyoming Business Council, and other community investment opportunities, I am beginning a comprehensive review of how all of our economic development programs work and if they work together or apart,” Gordon said in his speech. “I believe we can improve our approaches and have already begun conversations with the business council and the Chairmen of the ENDOW and ENGAGE councils.”
Speaking to the WBC board via teleconference on Thursday, the governor reaffirmed this desire, outlining for its members exactly what he believed the council should become under his administration. While the council would be more of the state’s economic analysis body – an entity for analysis and action that takes concrete action – the Endow Council would take more of a big picture, “think tank” view on the state’s economic development that should inform the business council’s deliberations – not overlap with it.
“I see some distinction between the two efforts,” said Gordon, “and I’m working very hard to define the differences between those for the public and the Legislature.”
“It’s not a broken model,” he added. “It’s good to take a moment to tighten it up.”
Getting there, however, will take some work. Throughout the morning’s discussion, members of the board continuously came back to one key aspect missing from the state’s economic development mission – communication – and the need for every group involved in economic development, from the Legislature to the councils themselves, to interact regularly.
Megan Overmann Goetz, a member of the board, said it has surprised her to find the council had not had legislative or educational liaisons, and noted that the WBC Council and Endow – which have similar policy goals – had yet to meet to rectify those goals with one another.
“It’s almost incomprehensible we’re all on the same page and we haven’t channeled those efforts together,” she said.