“If you avoid difficult things, great things will avoid you.” — G. Brimhall, former president of Brigham Young University
Last year, Gov. Matt Mead asked me to do a difficult thing — join the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming initiative executive council. He charged the council with bringing bold, game-changing ideas to the table that would help diversify Wyoming’s economy for the long term.
The downsides of turning him down? Walking away from the chance to change Wyoming’s economy in ways that provide lasting growth and stability for Wyoming families, with fewer boom-and-bust cycles. It was a chance to work with community and business leaders across the state to build the Wyoming we want future generations to inherit. Finally, it was a chance to drive action on what has been perhaps one of our state’s greatest challenges — eliminating barriers to economic diversification and focusing on industries with real potential for growth here in Wyoming.
As you can guess, I didn’t avoid the difficult ask. I agreed to serve on the ENDOW executive council and haven’t looked back. I’m proud to serve alongside industry, nonprofit, state and local leaders who share a commitment to capitalizing on our state’s greatest natural resource — our people.
ENDOW is not our state’s first endeavor to tackle the challenge of growing and attracting new industries. While we would all like to go straight to discussions about bringing new tech industries to our state or relocating manufacturing plants to our smaller towns, ENDOW recognized a critical first step that must be taken — addressing the very real barriers to economic diversification that we face.
After eight months of meetings with community and business stakeholders, the ENDOW executive council released preliminary findings and recommendations at the end of 2017 taking aim at these barriers. They include expanding broadband service, developing our skilled workforce, improving air service, developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem and requiring computer science education for K-12 students.
Less than three months later, action has been taken to address nearly all of the ten barriers we identified. In January, Gov. Mead signed two executive orders based on the ENDOW recommendations. The first established in-state contractor preferences for state technology contracts, and the second implemented an aggressive educational attainment goal, calling for 67 percent of Wyoming’ working-age population to hold a degree or certificate beyond a high school diploma by 2025.
During the 2018 Budget session, legislators passed a series of bills in support of the recommendations from the ENDOW executive council. This includes legislation to expand air service, improve broadband, provide workforce training, support blockchain and virtual currency and encourage entrepreneurialism and innovation.
Among perhaps the most important of these bills, particularly to tourism, a field near and dear to my heart, is Senate File 40. This legislation will support the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s 10-year Commercial Air Service Plan to create a reliable and affordable option for air service in Wyoming. CASP will enable the WYDOT Aeronautics Division to contract with an airline to provide commercial air service from regional airports to major hub airports, such as Denver or Salt Lake City. Local communities and the state would be able to determine the fares, flight times and potentially share in the profits.
Certain conditions foster economic diversification and create a foundation for success that the private sector looks to build around. Cultivating the optimal conditions for a variety of businesses to grow and prosper is where ENDOW can, and should, lead right now.
The executive council is now evaluating how to position Wyoming as a global competitor in a number of areas to drive future economic growth. While there are many industries in which Wyoming could be a leader, we have established five broad categories of opportunity based on Wyoming strengths, business trends and expertise. They are knowledge and creative economies, natural resources, advanced manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism and recreation. Each of these sectors has the potential to transform the landscape of our state and local economies, bringing new opportunities and jobs to our state while expanding potential in existing sectors.
Tourism and outdoor recreation are especially important to me. I’ve served on the Wyoming Parks and Cultural Resources Commission and worked as a consultant and business owner in the travel industry for decades. I know firsthand the incredible opportunities tourism and recreation can, and do, provide for communities of all sizes across our state. From our destination centers to the small towns frequented by visitors driving through, growing our tourism industry while ensuring thoughtful multiple use land management is essential.
ENDOW is working hand-in-hand with tourism and recreation leaders across the state to identify opportunities for growth. This includes expanding year-round guide services to tap into burgeoning tourism markets like destination photography and biking, and building out tourism and hospitality training programs across the state. ENDOW also is looking at how we can best support smaller communities primed for a tourism boom — communities with breathtaking natural resources that may still lack services like hotels and restaurants to attract substantial visitors.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. I offer it as one example of our efforts. The executive council is engaging with a wide range of industry and community leaders as well as small business owners and other citizens to identify opportunities for economic growth. We recognize that diversifying the economy isn’t about catering to one specific industry. There is no silver bullet and it is the job of ENDOW to leave no stone unturned in identifying opportunities for economic growth.
From the very beginning, public input and direction have been central to the work of ENDOW. The important discussions we are having about the future of our state and local economies aren’t ENDOW conversations, they’re Wyoming conversations. We’ve hosted more than a half-dozen public meetings across the state, hosted sector-focused public forums, represented ENDOW at countless community meetings, and engaged in endless conversations with citizens, businesses and local leaders in every corner of Wyoming. The Executive Council has relied heavily on the ideas and insights received through public comment and stakeholder feedback.
What’s more, we will be launching a public survey in the coming days that will enable citizens to provide ideas and feedback on industries, technologies and job opportunities most important to them. The survey will be posted on our website.
We will continue outreach and encourage every Wyoming citizen to engage in the ENDOW process by attending a meeting and submitting public comment, contributing feedback at [email protected], or joining the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ENDOWyo.
The need to diversify Wyoming’s economy is not a new challenge, but the ENDOW approach is. Wyoming’s economic downturn has provided the motivation, groundswell of support and opportunity needed to make meaningful changes. We can work together in different ways, build new ways to add value, and collaborate on innovative programs to support entrepreneurs. If we can successfully reduce or eliminate barriers that threaten economic growth and diversification, we can chart a bold new course for Wyoming with industries and opportunities that will outlive us all.
And that is a great thing worth doing.