The Wyoming of tomorrow needs thriving rural communities, a broadened economic base and mechanisms to support sustainable growth in our larger cities.
These won’t read as new assertions to anyone familiar with this column. But given the inherent limitations of an 800-word format — great for conveying broad concepts, but not a lot of room for nuance and detail — and because big problems aren’t solved overnight, it’s worth diving deeper into just how the state should tackle each of these priorities.
Let’s look first at the future of our rural communities. No matter how big Cheyenne and Casper get, we will always be, at heart, a rural state. The small, spread-out nature of our population and the wide-open spaces in between largely define Wyoming’s character. Nothing we do is going to change that.
As a rural state, we have strengths and weaknesses. We have lots of natural resources; unparalleled tourism and recreation opportunities; safe, friendly, affordable communities; plenty of room for growth; and a scale that enables individuals and organizations with vision and gumption to have real, meaningful impact.
Of course, there are tradeoffs. We have long winters, difficult weather and the wind. Travel within and to and from Wyoming can be long, arduous, expensive and, often during those long winters, unreliable. Public services and other necessities are often more expensive per capita because we rarely enjoy the economies of scale.
Wyoming’s future as a whole is inseparable from that of our rural communities. If the state is to prosper, so too must our rural communities. That means small towns and far-flung hamlets that don’t suffer population loss, are able to sustain their key industries and are positioned to capitalize on new business opportunities as they arise. The question is how to achieve this future. There are plenty of things that we in Wyoming can’t control. Most notably, we do not control global markets, including demand for coal, oil, gas or agricultural products. We can, however, determine how prepared we are to seize the opportunities available to us.
For Wyoming’s rural communities to thrive, we must be able to compete with other similarly situated places. We must invest in the kinds of infrastructure that provide our rural communities with equal access to markets and level the playing field when competing with other communities for jobs and investment. We need good roads, quality internet and data access, affordable energy and ample land and water. We already have energy and land, but we have more work to make sure we are prepared with the rest. These are the types of things that our state government should be focusing on if it wants a prosperous future for Wyoming.
We also need other community investments that do not necessarily spring to mind when we talk about “infrastructure.” The people who live in rural Wyoming do not live here because they want the city life (and if they do, they are not likely to stay for long). Rather, those who choose to live here want access to the outdoors, the different pace of life and the sense of self-reliance that comes with rural and small-town life. But a lack of fundamental, baseline community resources — think access to healthcare and quality education — may cause otherwise great community members to leave, or never come in the first place. Communities’ abilities to support a certain standard of living have similar effects on would-be residents’ decision making. Accordingly, when we talk about the investments that must be made in rural communities, we also must think about the things that are necessary to live “a good life” in the modern world.
Government itself cannot create prosperity — only people can. However, government can set the conditions that either grease the skids or erect barriers for people to achieve that goal. If we want rural communities with their best days ahead, we must create the conditions that empower those who want to build their life in rural Wyoming to do so. We all know what a great place to live Wyoming can be and we should hope that those who share that understanding have the opportunity to experience it as well. Our state should therefore focus on building the infrastructure to support rural communities, as well as making the community investments to provide the quality healthcare, education and standard of living that our rural communities need to thrive. If we can do this, Wyoming’s future is bright.