Lawmakers will soon decide the fate of several bills intended to stimulate downtown revitalizations and economic growth in Wyoming. 

“Economic development is a long game,” Rep. Trey Sherwood (D-Laramie) said. “It’s a lot of baby steps to get to that bigger impact.” Sherwood, who runs Laramie Main Street Alliance, will bring a pair of complementary bills to incentivize improving neglected or abandoned commercial buildings. 

Housing, however, is the biggest hindrance to economic development in the state, according to Sherwood. “How are you going to grow a business or recruit a business if the workforce doesn’t have a place to live?” she said. 

Two legislative committees made the topic a priority during the interim, but that only got lawmakers so far — mostly they advanced proposals to tamp down rising residential property taxes. Other lawmakers, meanwhile, have indicated interest in a film production rebate program and a new type of liquor license as ways of supporting Wyoming’s economic development during the upcoming 40-day general session. 

Building revitalization

Every downtown has at least one abandoned or neglected building, Sherwood said. Problem properties can be eyesores, but to Sherwood they’re also untapped revenue sources. 

To help communities cash in, one of Sherwood’s two bills would create a methodology for local governing bodies to declare qualifying property as abandoned or a nuisance. From there, a new property owner could be eligible for tax credits for rehabilitating the building or removing dangerous materials, such as asbestos. 

“It’s not eminent domain, it’s not ‘you lose your building,’” Sherwood said. “We’re just providing an opportunity for buildings that need a little love to get some attention.”

The second bill would provide similar incentives for commercial properties that are purchased by tax deed. The idea being, Sherwood said, if a community can get a building back on the property tax roll, it can also potentially provide housing or space for a tax-revenue-producing business. 

At press time, Sherwood was finalizing details for both bills with feedback from stakeholders but expected to have bi-partisan sponsorship. Sen. Dan Furphy (R-Laramie), who brought a similar bill in 2019, helped craft the legislation, Sherwood said. 

Liquor licensing 

After evaluating how Wyoming’s liquor license laws and fees may stifle new business, the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee voted to sponsor three related bills during the interim session. 

At least five municipalities have maxed out their bar and grill liquor licenses, according to Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne). That includes Cody, Jackson, Laramie, Sheridan and Cheyenne, where Zwonitzer said 11 businesses competed for one license earlier in 2022. Limits are currently based on a population formula but Senate File 13 – Bar and grill liquor license amendments would loosen that restriction over time starting in July. Ultimately, population formulas would sunset altogether in 2033. The bill would give municipalities more flexibility without making any changes to package liquor, according to Zwonitzer. 

“That was kind of where we drew a little bit of a line,” Zwonitzer said. “Because it’s one thing if somebody wants to drink during dinner or lunch. It’s another if they’re buying a six pack or they’re binge drinking in the bars.”

Laurel Nelson serves a customer a beer Aug. 12, 2022 at the Miner’s Grubstake and Dredge Saloon in Atlantic City. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Another bill would create a new kind of liquor license. Senate File 12 – Tavern and entertainment liquor license would enable emerging businesses that want to serve alcohol but are neither restaurants or bars, such as axe throwing or golf simulation venues. Under current regulations, a restaurant can qualify for a bar and grill liquor license if no less than 60% of its revenue comes from food service instead of alcohol sales. Similarly, the tavern and entertainment permit would require the establishment to earn at least 60% of its revenue from entertainment, food services or a combination of the two. 

The committee heard varied testimony in the interim, Zwonitzer said, with bill proponents blaming current statutes for stifling business and economic diversification, including Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins. Health care providers, law enforcement and the Wyoming State Liquor Association, on the other hand, shared public safety concerns with the committee. 

“Personally, I get concerned when we start saying we can’t have economic development without alcohol,” Zwonitzer said. “I don’t think that’s as strong a correlation as everybody says it is.”

A third bill would make changes to how retail liquor license fees are assessed. 

Film incentives

Western movies and television, like the hit show “Yellowstone,” have scenes set in Wyoming, but too few of those projects are shot in the state, according to proponents of a film incentive bill.

“To say [to production companies] ‘we have lower taxes’ just does not cut the mustard,” according to outgoing Rep. Chad Banks (D-Rock Springs), who manages the Urban Renewal Agency with Rock Springs Main Street. 

Without a direct financial incentive, Wyoming can’t compete with other states like Montana, Utah and New Mexico, Banks said. 

Despite several years of industry pressure, lawmakers have not budged on the issue. Previous efforts have been thwarted by constitutionality concerns, though similar incentives in neighboring states have avoided legal challenges, according to a recent memo from the Legislative Service Office. 

Now, the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee has resurrected a bill from 2022, giving lawmakers another chance to debate creating a rebate-like program. As drafted by the committee, the bill would use lodging tax dollars to fund the program with $3 million every two years. Qualifying productions would be reimbursed up to 30% of their expenses. At press time, the bill had yet to be posted. 

Hollywood’s reputation as left leaning hasn’t helped previous iterations of the bill in conservative Wyoming, Banks said. Plus, the benefits of the program may not be obvious to everyone, he said. When “Starship Troopers” filmed at Hell’s Half Acre outside of Casper, for example, Banks said local hotels, catering and construction companies were the benefactors. 

“The most successful economic development is with businesses and folks that have already chosen to make Wyoming their home,” Banks said.  

The 2023 general session begins on Jan. 10.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct information about the show “Yellowstone.” —Ed.

Maggie Mullen reports on state government and politics. Before joining WyoFile in 2022, she spent five years at Wyoming Public Radio.

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  1. In regards to: “Western movies and television, like the hit show “Yellowstone,” are often set in Wyoming”

    Yellowstone, the TV show, is set (and filmed) in Montana. Not Wyoming.

    The Yellowstone Dutton Ranch is an actual ranch in Montana, located in the Paradise Valley in Park County. And when the weather took a turn for the worse just recently, they all high-tailed it to LA to finish filming. Hollywood has no special need to come to Wyoming. Chroma key green screens can put you on the moon.

  2. Growth, growth, growth…GROW UP, Wyoming! Peddlers can’t make it on their own, then let ’em go under. They have never subsidized me, in any way.

  3. Oh, if only state-sanctioned economic development ever came close to working in Wyoming , let alone justifying its investment , producing jobs , or added more to the taxbase than it took. I’ve been birddogging state sponsored economic development schemes in and around Cody for the past 40 years . Nearly all were failures or foibles over time. ( Show me otherwise; prove me wrong on that )

    Yet here we are. A new Legislature gestating, one that seems to think state assisted economic development means adding more liquor licenses. Wow. There’s a job mill if ever…

    It’s worth reminding readers that the State of Wyoming literally bankrolled a private opium mill in Cody for over 15 years, providing sweetheart loans and outright grants totalling millions of taxpayer dollars to produce opioids during the most turbulent years of the rampaging opioid crisis, pre-Fentanyl era. It’s how we roll…

    1. Dewey,

      The expansion of more liquor licenses probably won’t be all that different from the rampaging opioid crisis. The true cost to a community is rarely calculated.

      In typical socialist fashion the State is in the business of selling booze and it taxes alcohol sales so they probably think it’s a winning investment even if the ROI for the overall economy is limited to them.

      A liquor license is certainly worth putting up for auction. Or possibly extracting more taxes from those businesses that get one. A license is worth millions to many businesses in Jackson (besides direct sales in restaurants, it also attracts diners). And yet we pretty much give liquor licenses away. They should pay for the damage done.

      What’s truly missing is the cost of diversifying our economy as Madden pointed out in 2021 when he suggested that growth in any or all of the non-mineral sectors produced long-run fiscal deficits for the state due to the State’s tax structure:

      And another study suggested that the wealthy in Wyoming create a similar dynamic by demanding more services than they pay for (can’t find the study online).

      A look at the Jackson Hole Airport shows that they have received over $100 million in 7 years from the feds. And that doesn’t include the cost of managing that money or the interest rate on the debt. A large percentage of the benefits of the airport go to the wealthy who park their jets there or fly in commercially. How it all plays out economically is open to debate. Because, at the same time, Teton County and Jackson can barely afford to pay their gold-plated bills if you believe the politicians. It certainly can’t find enough housing for its public servants. Heavily subsidized economic “success” has costs that the State likes to ignore.

      The average effective state and local tax rates in the U.S. take far more from the poor than the wealthy if you believe the liberal think tank If true, Wyoming’s working class will pay an even higher cost for economic diversity as we are moving away from extraction industries.

      “In the 10 states with the most regressive tax structures (The Terrible 10), the lowest-income 20 percent pay up to six times as much of their income in taxes as their wealthy counterparts. Washington State is the most regressive, followed by Texas, Florida, South Dakota, Nevada, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.”