We hear this mantra every time the economy in Wyoming dips into the bust cycle: It’s time to diversify our economy. Then, when energy prices are on the rise and drilling hits a fevered pitch once again, we fall into the old trap of worrying about the moment and forgetting about the future. We do that in our personal lives and at the state government level too, especially among the elected officials.
Plus, every time the energy sector in the Cowboy State takes a big hit, we hoist up the old tried-and-true banners. We jump on the belt tightening bandwagon – but don’t really get fully on board (“We back education, but we like UW athletics even more”). We argue for the need to save every penny we can for the next rainy day – which never comes (“See, we were right to save now that we need it; so we shouldn’t spend it now, either”). We suddenly seem to see the need to diversify our economy across the entire state – but really don’t want government to play too big a role in that (“We should put all that diversification in Laramie or Cheyenne and let the other parts of the state fend for themselves.”)
Well, here we are, in an economic downturn that, from an historical perspective, isn’t all that bad . . . yet. We’ve seen worse. Remember the 1980s? True, if you are out of work or recently opened a business based on the boom, this is a pretty bad time, and we don’t mean to minimize your pain. It can be severe.
Once again, we are hearing the drums beating off in the distance that tired old refrain of looking to diversify the economy to stave off these ups and downs that are so hard on our working families and cities and counties. The state, for all the current writhing in Cheyenne, really isn’t suffering all that much. Legislators still find the money for their pet projects and sacred cows, $8 million for UW athletics matches, $300 million for State Capitol construction and hundreds of millions more for school and state buildings.
Here’s the deal. If state officials are really serious about diversification, now is the time to double down. We have, for instance, a feasibility study for a creation of a plastics manufacturing operation in our part of the state. Converse County and CANDO, among others, are spending money and time on it because plastics use the resources we already have in abundance in the state. CANDO and the county agreed to split the estimated $40,000 max cost to market the feasibility study to the plastics industry; the city of Douglas opted not to participate.
Who knows if these efforts will work, but the reality is we either do them or we never really build our economy and diversify from a mine-and-ship mentality to a manufacturing backbone. This is a good time to not just chant the diversification mantra but actually do something about it; we have the time given the downturn and we still have enough money here to make it happen.