The political doldrums between August’s high-energy primary election and Wyoming’s typically more staid general election are a great time to consider what the future of our state might look like. Rather than focus on rural communities as I did in June, let’s look at the future of Wyoming’s urban areas.
Census numbers unequivocally show that Wyoming’s population is increasingly concentrated in its cities and towns. Over half of our state population lives in our 12 largest cities. Our three largest cities alone are home to nearly 27% of Wyomingites, and that is just the people within city limits. If you consider metro areas, the five largest account for over half of our state population. Contrary to what many may expect, Wyoming’s population is primarily located in cities.
We need to plan, invest and make policies accordingly, even though our heritage and mindset are unquestionably rural. The accelerating expansion of urban populations nationwide and in Wyoming presents a different set of challenges. While our smaller towns and rural areas wrestle with the questions posed by population loss, our urban areas must consider how to approach growth. What levels of growth can a community sustain in a given period? How do we address infrastructure and services with the influx of new people? How do we ensure that the people who are growing our cities are contributing to healthy communities? Our cities and towns must contend with these questions and more as new people move in.
Wyoming’s cities have the potential to drive our economy in significant ways. Our population centers have access to transportation hubs, natural resources and an advantageous tax climate — all of which should make them attractive to businesses that will help fuel urban growth and success. However, we also have obstacles. To lure new or relocating enterprises, our cities also need skilled workforces, affordable housing, infrastructure — especially water — and the amenities that make them desirable places to live.
For Wyoming’s cities to thrive, we need to address these obstacles. Perhaps the most pressing issue is access to water. Wyoming is an arid state and water access is already cause for significant concern. Municipal water projects are neither quick nor cheap. We would do well to start planning now for how to provide our growing communities with the water they’ll need to support additional population and industry. If there is one thing that could stop significant development in its tracks, I suspect access to water is it.
We also must make a concentrated effort to ensure our cities are places where people want to live. If we are going to attract the professionals and families that drive economic prosperity, our cities and towns must be places where they want to spend their lives and raise their families. With a highly mobile workforce, we are no longer competing with just the next town or state over. Instead, people can move nationwide to fit their preferences.
Although there has been progress, our cities still lag behind when it comes to the enriching amenities that young families value. Many of our cities lack access to things like local restaurants, entertainment options and other quality-of-life amenities that people have come to expect in cities. We can address this, at least partially, by making it easier to open and grow those types of businesses.
We have a generally friendly tax climate, but we still have too many bureaucratic obstacles to starting small businesses. Removing outdated regulations like many of our liquor-license caps would help streamline the process, provide a more welcoming environment for entrepreneurs and set a more favorable table for Wyomingites to grow their own businesses.
One other area that we must address for our cities to thrive is the “Not In My Back Yard” or “NIMBY” mindset. This is the idea that, while I may support job growth or development in theory, I do not want any impacts to my day-to-day life. The NIMBY mindset is all right with growth, but not if it impacts traffic or causes personal inconvenience. It wants the impacts of growth to be borne by others. Simply put, it wants the benefits, but not the associated costs of a thriving community.
For Wyoming to thrive in the future, we must recognize that our cities are the prime economic drivers of our state. Most of the state already lives in our cities, and the percentage is growing. These bigger communities have the potential to bring a lot of prosperity to our state, but we must support them in developing the infrastructure and amenities that will allow them to take advantage of opportunities. Growth is vital, and we can support that growth to ensure that Wyoming’s tomorrow is as bright as its past.