Lincoln Highway in Cheyenne. (FlickrCC/Ken Kanouse)

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.

Opinion

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.

Khale Lenhart

Cheyenne attorney Khale Lenhart is a former chairman of the Laramie County Republican Party. He can be reached at khale.lenhart@gmail.com

Join the Conversation

7 Comments

Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I grew up in Clearmont, and primarily hung out in Buffalo and Sheridan, I am very familiar with NIMBY. My grandpa Bob worked on committees in the 60s and 70s he told me one time that even then, getting someone to move or even plan for population growth was nigh impossible.

  2. As a former New Yorker who got a job in Wyoming and lived there for years, I had to laugh at the word “City” being used for anyplace there. I did live in Casper, which with Cheyenne, bears the closest resemblance to anything larger than the usual conception of a “town. ” There are many problems with Wyoming becoming “urban ” One, it is down there with Alabama in terms of medical care. 2. People who like cities tend to be liberal and don’t want to live in places where the majority are bright red. 3. The people aren’t welcoming to strangers. I knew people who moved to Casper, like the wife of a new city manager who “went back to California” for Thanksgiving with the kids, and never returned. He had to quit his job. It’s not just about water! The entire population would have to re-examine priorities and attitudes to attract urban- minded people which they’d rather not have. Actually the smaller towns, like Laramie and Lander, are probably more appealing to city- loving folks .

  3. Lenhart lists a number of necessary focuses to attract new residents and keep younger people who tend to leave. Infrastructure, lack of employment with a future, and outmoded approaches to regulating business are three.

    Over the next couple decades Wyoming will watch its extractive industries shrink, then disappear. Renewable energy will expand and become part of the new two faceted economic backbone of the state. The other is tourism.

    What Lenhart doesn’t mention is perception of Wyoming and what actually attracts young people. Good schools for children and a legislature actually doing something to create them. Progressive laws around alcohol and marijuana. No one wants to move to a state that will arrest you for smoking pot. Govt regulations that promote a healthy natural environment and sustainable use practices. State funded, community support to create perceived opportunities for small business startup.

    We need to vote in representatives who have positive vision, who vote for investment in infrastructure and welcoming business regulations that let young people see “career” and “home” when thinking of staying in, or moving to Wyoming.

    Part of this could involve a progressive state corporate and personal income tax where any family making less than the median income that in 2020 was $71,000 would pay no state taxes. (https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MEHOINUSWYA672N)

    Property taxes would need to be raised. Any civil engineer having knowledge of water, sewer, and storm drain infrastructure in Wyoming towns will tell you that maintenance has been woefully underfunded for decades and decades. Natural gas and electricity rates go up to pay for necessary maintenance. Why not sewer, water and storm drain maintenance?

    And if raising property taxes is too onerous, then increase state corporate and personal income taxes at the margins with the intent to fund infrastructure maintenance.

    It would not be too hard to create a narrative where Wyoming’s adoption of a state income tax is a positive for young people, as long as other parts of the narrative weave taxation into a positive vision for the next decades.

    1. To be sure, this sounds crackpot. What profitable renewable energy sources are there? Both wind and solar will lead the state into the red. There is little to no upside to these sources. The nuclear MSR will be the future of energy. Secondly, my wife and I moved to Wyoming from Colorado with our two small children specifically to get away from progressive policies. Colorado went from the fastest growing state to stagnant growth due to their progressive policies. There are plenty of people, especially with children, who view weed as a bane to society and not a boon. Your comment infers that all young people smoke weed, which is absurd. Young people that do smoke weed are probably not the quality of people that our state needs either. For the most part, they are whiny and entitled dregs. We just need more businesses to provided well paying jobs. Wyoming is great because it’s not Colorado. Colorado sucks because it’s not Wyoming.

      1. The people that smoked weed were the ones designing and building the future. Why do you think coffee shops arose in the pacific northwest? Weed users need caffeine to continue providing you an advanced society. FBI does drug testing, but Microsoft and Google do not. I will let you think on that for a bit.

        Apparently you do not study history very much as the largest crime wave in American history was touched off by passing the 18th Amendment – Prohibition. Banning alcohol was dumb but America’s war on naturally occurring plants touched off an international crime wave that is only getting worse.

        Colorado did America a HUGE favor by defying the stupidity of banning a plant. Ending the war on plants would solve the incarceration, immigration and overdose problem in America but you are advocating for the continuation of insanity. Wyoming has enough money to keep doing stupid things, just look around and with people like you moving it will continue to circle the drain.

  4. Timely opinion and one I heartily agree with as opposed to investing in rural communities.  The data is clear that Wyoming should retain its rural character while investing in non-sprawl growth for cities.  Afton’s water issue is just the tip of the non-existent iceberg when it comes to providing services that appeal to the retirees or attempting to keep young people.  Each of these groups needs a sufficient population to satisfy their individual needs.  The young need enough young people to find a match while those matched up need schools, hospitals, restaurants, recreational facilities as well as access to Wyoming’s abundant green spaces.

    Wyoming and the US cannot continue to make poor investments when it comes to providing infrastructure (rebuilding the barrier island known as Sanibel for instance) for its populace as the data indicates that Wyomingites are voting with their feet to be in areas where services and sufficient social opportunities are available.  Wyoming and the US need to have a National/State Zoning discussion about what investments should be made and where they  could  be applied so that the “greatest good” can be achieved.

    I realize in the current political climate nothing of true importance will be discussed and Wyoming needs to face its long standing hubris with the natural world as this sentiment etched upon the University of Wyoming Engineering Building needs to be replaced “Strive On – The Control of Nature is Won Not Given.”

    Hmm maybe “Come on – Working with Nature means we all Win”

    Invest where the water and infrastructure are already in place that have sufficient population to provide the services we can expect without additional subsidies from the State or Federal Government.  Sounds simple…..but it is not.

  5. I live in Riverton, one of Wyoming’s 12 urban areas that you refer to that makes up over half of Wyoming. What seems big here now is an effort to clean up Riverton. But what impact does that have for the homeless people? For those with addictions? Arrest and jail are not the answer. How we go about that matters.