The Wyoming Business Council wants to positively impact the state’s gross domestic product over the next decade.
That vision is the driver behind the strategic plan being laid out by Wyoming’s economic development agency.
“Our mission is to increase Wyoming’s prosperity,” said Shawn Reese, chief executive officer of the Business Council. “The GDP, or the total value of goods and services produced in Wyoming, is a good measure of that.”
Wyoming’s gross domestic product grew 32 percent over the last decade.
To grow GDP, the Business Council has built a road map for expanding heavy industry, increasing exports and foreign investment, growing small businesses, creating a technology sector and bolstering quality communities.
“We are actively engaged with industry to understand their needs,” said Tom Johnson, chief performance officer of the Business Council. “Then we can bring their concerns to the state and see if there is a way to address them.”
Constructing large-scale industrial parks is central to the Business Council’s industrial development strategy. These parks cater specifically to companies that turn raw resources into higher value products. The concept has been tested in places like Alberta, Canada. Alberta’s Industrial Heartland is 225 square miles of industrial land that has attracted $30 billion in investment and now employs 7,000 people.
Wyoming oil and gas producers will create new products from the raw materials extracted from the ground. Those products can then be sold for higher profits than just the crude minerals.
“Coal, oil and gas are the backbone of Wyoming’s economy,” said Ben Avery, business and industry division director of the Business Council. “But as the regulatory environment becomes more onerous, the public sector and private industry will need to find new, innovative markets for those products.”
Building industrial parks requires public feedback, cooperation with industry experts and a common sense permitting process.
Economic developers can partner with community colleges to train new workers and existing support industries to create supply chains.
Air and rail service, along with other infrastructure, will need to be expanded.
The Business Council also expects to develop new initiatives and create financial incentives to entice private industry to invest in value-added projects.
Investing in innovators
Recruiting new companies is only a small part of growing Wyoming’s economy. The Business Council also wants to nurture homegrown entrepreneurs. By 2026, the goal is to be ranked first in the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation study for number of new startups per capita. The Business Council also wants to increase the five-year survival rate of startups to 50 percent.
Today, Wyoming ranks second in startups with nearly 280 out of every 100,000 adults becoming entrepreneurs in any given month, according to the Kauffman Index.
Of Wyoming’s nearly 34,000 businesses, 80 percent employ fewer than 10 people.
“Wyomingites are independent people, however when it comes to starting and operating a business, we hope they’ll take advantage of all the great resources available to them,” said Jill Kline, state director of the Wyoming Small Business Development Center.
The first few years of a new venture, Kline added, are the most challenging for a business.
The Small Business Development Center helps owners access capital, develop a team and create a marketing strategy.
Creating a successful entrepreneurial environment starts with making licensing and permitting easier.
Businesses need employees to grow. The Business Council and Wyoming communities will make plans for workforce development and housing.
Economic developers will work with angel fund networks, like the Pitch Me expo in Jackson Hole to match investors with businesses.
Export and market expansion will help business owners discover a larger client base. Wyoming will work closely with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Western U.S. Agricultural Trade Association to make local businesses more competitive in foreign markets.
Over the next decade, the Business Council is going to help increase Wyoming exports 50 percent. Exports were a $1.8 billion industry for Wyoming in 2014.
To grow exports, the Business Council will leverage the diplomatic ties that Wyoming policymakers have forged, advocate for expanded ports and provide more technical assistance to help Wyoming companies export.
At the same time, the Business Council wants to double direct foreign investment in Wyoming. Last year, the state garnered $2 million in foreign investment.
The Business Council is evaluating a program, called the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, which entices foreign business leaders to invest in Wyoming. Foreign investors can receive a visa if they give at least $500,000 toward a project that creates or saves at least 10 jobs.
At home, the Wyoming Business Resource Network can also provide individual help to entrepreneurs through market analysis and technical assistance. The Business Council provides money to about a dozen Business Resource Network partners. Those partners then focus in various ways on local small business development.
Technology center of the high plains
An ambitious tenet of the Business Council’s vision to grow Wyoming’s GDP 100 percent is a plan to make technology the state’s fourth largest sector. In 2013, the technology industry, comprising about 50 advanced industries that spend more on research and development and employ workers in science and math intensive jobs, accounted for just 5.7 percent of Wyoming jobs. The state ranks 46th in the nation.
“We want Wyoming to be the technology center of the high plains,” Johnson said. “We’ve made huge strides toward that goal in the last five years, but we have a lot of work left to do.”
The Business Council wants to see the number of patents awarded per capita double over 10 years. Wyoming inventors were awarded 122 patents in 2014.
Business Resource Network experts have a number of programs available to help improve the number of patents awarded. One of those programs provides money to help businesses apply for federal research grants. Wyoming wants to double the amount of federal research grant money awarded in the state. Wyoming ranked 37th in 2013.
Technology companies like SciAps, formerly DeltaNu, in Laramie epitomize the rewards of the Small Business Innovation Research program. DeltaNu builds medical analytical tools. The equipment used to be the size of a car and cost $100,000. DeltaNu won $4.5 million in grants over a decade spanning to 2007. That money helped the company to hire experts, develop its first commercial product and reduce the equipment to a handheld device worth $15,000.
The Business Council is also interested in creating a seed capital program to help technology companies get off the ground.
The greatest resource for technology entrepreneurs is often their peers, which is why economic developers want to help form a Wyoming Technology Association and create a technology plan to guide the state in the future.
Like heavy industry, the technology sector relies on well-developed infrastructure to operate. The Business Council will help extend last-mile broadband internet service and expand cell service in Wyoming. The idea is to achieve one gigabit internet speeds in 75 percent of the state.
Keeping it local
Wyoming’s education system will also play a vital role in making the state a technology hub. Schools that focus on youth entrepreneurship and a curriculum steeped in science, technology, engineering and math will give students an advantage when it is time to enter the workforce.
Once those students graduate, Wyoming has a vested interest in making sure they stay in the Cowboy State to work and play. Bolstering quality communities is essential to retaining Wyoming’s youth.
The Business Council plans to increase total property and sales tax collection 35 percent. The expansion of the Wyoming Main Street program is part of achieving that goal.
“The purpose of the Main Street Program is to make downtown districts economically successful,” said Linda Klinck, Main Street program manager. “By using market data, businesses and building owners can increase sales and property values.”
The Main Street program provides businesses market analysis to show what kinds of products are missing in a community and how entrepreneurs can meet those needs. The program also helps coordinate marketing and promotions to bring people downtown and increase sales. Main Street communities also emphasize infill to increase property taxes.
The strategic plan for Wyoming’s economic development in the next decade is built on a foundation of leadership and public policy. By creating quality communities, developing a skilled workforce and constructing infrastructure, Wyoming’s leaders set the stage for entrepreneurs to start new companies and for existing businesses to expand. That leads to a growing economy, which attracts the attention of outside enterprises that relocate to Wyoming and further embolden the state.
“Economic development is a process, not an event,” Reese said. “And that process is how we are going to increase Wyoming’s prosperity.”