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Editorial board: Questions remain concerning state's latest entrepreneurial effort

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Casper

The skyline of downtown Casper reflects in the Platte River as the sun goes down in January 2018. The state has tried for decades to diversify its economy. 

Just before Thanksgiving, Gov. Mark Gordon announced that he will allocate $27 million in federal relief funding to help pay for the newly launched Wyoming Innovation Partnership. The program is intended to boost and diversify the state’s economy, which may be improving, but has yet to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s more, the state has wrestled for decades with the question of how to become less dependent on the extractive industries.

The first phase of the program will provide relief funding to the University of Wyoming and the state’s community colleges to pay for “collaborative programs in entrepreneurship, energy, digital infrastructure, technology, tourism and hospitality,” according to Gordon’s announcement. The effort will include developing a new Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and expanding the university’s business incubators, which already exist in Laramie, Casper and Sheridan, to all cities that are home to a community college (Cheyenne, Gillette, Powell, Riverton, Rock Springs and Torrington), plus two that aren’t (Evanston and Rawlins).

The relief money will also help launch a statewide computing education program, support tourism and hospitality programs and fund “power line technology and low-voltage fiber-optic programs at the community colleges,” according to the governor’s office.

On the surface, the effort would seem to address long-standing issues in Wyoming. This editorial board has long advocated for a Wyoming economy that’s less reliant on a few key industries, as well as measures to address the departure of young people to states with more economic opportunities. But questions about the program remain.

The most basic among them is: What exactly will this all look like? A focus on entrepreneurship, technology and innovation is wise, but the state has a history of launching programs with similar buzzwords that did not change our economic fortunes. A few years back, state leaders established ENDOW, a program with similar aims. Thought it received considerable attention and fanfare, the results were ultimately lacking.

Then there is a question of how this partnership will operate in practice. Will the community colleges have equal seats at the table? Or will the university, due to its size and stature, dominate the decision making. We hope it’s the former, as each individual college will know what’s best for their communities.

Finally, there is the question of sustainability. The governor is using relief funds to boost this effort. But we cannot count on the federal government to continue to supply Wyoming with large sums of aid. The governor’s announcement says the university and colleges are committed to using the start-up money “to develop new efficiencies so that the programs can be self-sustaining.” What exactly does that mean? And will the Legislature, which holds the purse strings, be on board? Starting a new program without a way to sustain it is concerning. We need more details, especially when you consider that the $27 million will be spread over so many communities.

None of this is to say that the governor shouldn’t be trying to work with Wyoming’s institutions of higher learning to address the state’s long-standing economic issues. That goal is laudable and necessary. But we need more information. It is the details that will dictate whether this venture is successful or becomes yet the latest in a long line of Wyoming entrepreneurial ventures that didn’t pan out.

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