In its infancy, Wyoming’s economic development agency tried recruiting businesses by touting the state’s many assets.
The refrain of no personal income and corporate taxes, good education, low crime and an enviable lifestyle wasn’t enough on its own to attract business, however. State economic developers learned businesses also needed to be able to move quickly to a new site. Companies needed land with infrastructure like water, gas, roads, electricity and internet.
“I was with the city of Cheyenne at the time, and I remember a meeting when the Lowe’s distribution center first popped up,” said Shawn Reese, who is now chief executive officer of the Wyoming Business Council. “It was one of the biggest economic development prospects in the early years of the Business Council.”
Lowe’s wanted to open a warehouse in the Cheyenne Business Parkway but it needed infrastructure like an interchange on Interstate 80.
There weren’t many ways the state could help with the infrastructure. Fortunately, the Wyoming Department of Transportation, the city, the county and Cheyenne LEADS, Laramie County’s local economic development agency, partnered to make the project work.
Today, the 900,000 square-foot regional distribution center employs 450 people.
The project underscored the need for a single entity capable of helping towns install the infrastructure to further community and economic development. In 2003, the Wyoming Legislature created the Business Ready Community grant and loan program to address the problem.
Since then, the Business Council has assisted the development of more than 5,800 acres into commercial and industrial business parks.
“You can’t entice a company to come in if you don’t have gas and power,” said Tom Barritt, chief executive officer of Tiger Transfer. “Infrastructure is everything when it comes to economic development. That’s what it’s all about.”
Tiger Transfer is in charge of the Upton Logistics Center, a 580-acre park developed in the wake of a devastating economic loss to the northeastern Wyoming community.
Upton’s largest private employer, American Colloid Bentonite Company, shuttered in 2002. The 70-year-old businesses’ closure left 38 people unemployed.
Barritt was part of a nonprofit, the Weston County Development Corporation, formed to replace those jobs.
Since 2004, the Business Council has awarded $3.35 million in grants to help purchase the property, perform demolition, build a new rail spur on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, build roads, and install water and sewer lines.
“For a small community like ours, the Business Council is a godsend because it would have taken a long time to get that money together,” Barritt said. “We wouldn’t have gotten this project off the ground nearly as quickly.”
The money leveraged $19 million in additional private investment. Ten companies have moved into the park. Those businesses created more than 40 high-paying jobs.
Revenue from sources like lease payments is poured back into the community.
“Now Upton can take this nest egg and help with infrastructure in town.” Barritt said. “This was a grassroots effort and a perfect example of how economic development should work.”
Business park development is a strategy working statewide.
Along Interstate 80, infrastructure-laden business parks have helped diversify the economy. A $1.5 million grant to install a sewer line in the North Range Business Park played a role in enticing a Microsoft data center, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a Walmart distribution center to Cheyenne.
The Business Council since 2003 has spent $206 million installing 144 miles of water and sewer lines like those in the North Range Park. The money also helped build 105 miles of road.
All told, 61 percent of the 5,800 acres the Business Council has helped develop are occupied. Occupancy climbs to 76 percent in parks partially developed prior to Business Council assistance.
In smaller towns like Torrington, business parks allow existing industry to expand.
“All we had to do was purchase the lot and get started on construction,” said Mike Swanson, general manager of farm and ranch supply store Bomgaars. “When you have a well-built business and you want to expand it, it takes a lot of legwork. Having the infrastructure already there made growth a lot easier for us.”
Bomgaars was on its own water and septic systems in its previous location, Swanson explained.
Bomgaars moved into the 57-acre Cold Springs Business Park shortly after completion of the site. The Business Council contributed $2.9 million to the project.
The company added several full-time staff and doubled its seasonal workforce thanks to the expansion, Swanson added.
“This is a great place to do business,” Swanson said. “Our economic development folks, they took good care of us.”
The Business Council has invested $98.8 million in business parks statewide since 2004. Much of that was spent in the first few years of the program to help the state catch up, according to Reese.
“In the 1990s, during the bust, Wyoming had not continued to invest in itself,” Reese said. “We got to the 2000s, when things were booming, and we were not only dealing with infrastructure for that boom, but we were also dealing with the incredible backlog of infrastructure that had not been invested in.”
Building the necessary water, sewer, road and broadband will be just as important when the economy is slow as when it is ramping up, Reese added.
The work is necessary to continue attracting new businesses and to help existing companies expand in Wyoming.
About the Wyoming Business Council. Our mission is to increase Wyoming’s prosperity. We envision a Wyoming where industries are strong, diverse and expanding. Small business is a big deal. Communities have the highest quality of life. Wyoming is the technology center of the High Plains. Wyoming knows no boundaries. Please go to www.wyomingbusiness.org for more information.