Officials focus on community resilience amid coal’s downturn

The above screengrab shows the five elements of community resilience described by Kelli Roemer during the third and final webinar put on by the Powder River Basin Resource Council this spring.

EVANSTON — The third and final webinar in the Powder River Basin Resource Council’s spring 2021 “Reclaiming and Growing Wyoming’s Future” was held this month, with presenters speaking on “Resources and Opportunities of the New Economy.” The final webinar, held June 8, featured Kelli Roemer, PhD. candidate and researcher, who focused on resilience in rural resource communities; Jay Stender of the WY Ranch and formerly with Forward Sheridan; and Josh Dorrell and Ron Gullberg with the Wyoming Business Council.

As first presenter, Roemer spoke about her research into resilient rural communities and the factors that enable communities to withstand shocks, such as the loss of important drivers of revenue and employment. Using examples of rural communities that have had to adapt to changing economies, Roemer said there are four key areas that must be addressed to plan for both economic and social impacts of closure of major industries. Those four key areas include stabilization and replacement of lost revenues, remediation, proactive and long-term support and taking a regional approach in planning.

Roemer said one of the primary challenges facing communities attempting to adjust to economic changes like those facing Wyoming due to the downturn in the fossil fuel energy industry is that there has been a lack of policies, at both the state and federal level, that provide guidance and assistance. There can also be uncertainty surrounding existing policies and that uncertainty makes it difficult to adequately plan and prepare for a transition away from traditional economic drivers.

However, despite that uncertainty, there are some elements Roemer and her colleagues have identified that significantly impact whether a community can be successful in becoming resilient and transitioning to a new economy. First, and most importantly, resilience efforts must be self-driven by the people who live and work in the communities rather than by outsiders coming into a given area, which Roemer described as “how residents of a place self-organize and exercise agency in response to shocks,” whether those shocks are abrupt or develop more slowly over time.

Within those self-organized efforts are five elements of community resilience, including outlook, place, people, networks and process. Roemer expanded on each elements, noting that outlook includes an acceptance of the changing situation and place means a “sense of place,” such that residents recognize the role key industries have played in the culture and history of an area.

The people element includes a broad and diverse spectrum of individuals within a community working together and bringing their own expertise and experience to the group, while networks involves the existing organizations and institutions both within a given community and throughout the region. Finally, process again deals with a self-organized and community-driven response to the situation, with community-driven solutions.

One of the examples used by Roemer was a coal community in British Columbia, Canada, that was faced with a transition away from lumber mills after more than a century of being a “lumber community.” She said the community response in that community was to conduct community conversations and workshops to conduct a community inventory of well-being, through which individuals involved identified strengths existing within the community to identify areas of opportunity, with specific attention to identity and culture. Together, community leaders were able to outline many potential paths to pursue and identify strategic investment opportunities.

Following Roemer’s portion, Stender, formerly of Forward Sheridan, spoke about the process used to help drive economic growth in Sheridan over the past decade-plus. Stender said that Forward Sheridan began to think about and plan for a transition away from a huge emphasis on coal more than a decade ago — that proactive approach has made Sheridan an oft-referenced community for those discussing economic diversification and resilience.

Stender explained that one of the biggest challenges facing areas working to diversify an economy is cultural when “legacy industries” have been in place for more than a hundred years and up to six generations of people define themselves as miners, for example. The presence of such legacy industries carries societal expectations when residents describe their community as a “coal town,” and resist efforts to move away from that distinction.

However, Stender focused on the huge job losses already occurring throughout Wyoming due to the energy downturn, noting that the mining, oil and gas sector lost approximately 6,000 jobs and state taxable revenue from coal sales is down 63% since the fourth quarter of 2019. He said Forward Sheridan focused heavily on recruiting manufacturing while working to diversify — specifically on manufacturing not directly tied to coal. The result is that as mining and quarry jobs in Sheridan have decreased, manufacturing jobs have increased.

Stender said their group emphasized the skilled and reliable workforce available to lure manufacturing employers to the area, noting that miners often possess some of the same skills emphasized in manufacturing jobs. He also explained how Forward Sheridan utilized incentives to urge companies to relocate, including grants and low-interest loans, for example. He said offering such incentives is standard practice in many neighboring states that are experiencing rapid growth.

Echoing some of Roemer’s presentation, Stender too stressed the importance of local leadership in finding opportunities and said that local leadership doesn’t necessarily mean elected officials but includes business owners, organizational leaders and those willing to put in the effort to diversify an area’s economy.

Stender closed by noting the many selling points of Wyoming, including low taxation, an available and eager workforce, low operational costs compared to surrounding states, the culture and landscape of the state and incentive programs that may be possible through the Wyoming Business Council or through the investment of COVID relief funds. He pointed out the need to focus on infrastructure as the state is experiencing growth as people relocate to Wyoming and continue to work remotely, necessitating reliable broadband access.

Finally, Dorrell and Gullberg with the Wyoming Business Council focused on some of the programs and resources offered by the WBC to help communities seeking to lure new businesses. Dorrell began by emphasizing that transition is not an overnight process and there are no silver bullet solutions, saying for communities to thrive they need to demonstrate “stick-to-it-ness.”

“What may be thought of an overnight success is really 10-15 years in the making in terms of economic development,” he said.

Dorrell also spoke about Wyoming’s legacy industries, noting they’re important not only from a financial perspective but also in terms of culture and identity. He said one of the goals of the WBC is to honor those core industries while leveraging them to activate new economic sectors. The WBC can help communities by offering three main problem-solving tools, including funding in the form of grant and loan programs, help navigating the policy and regulatory environments of business development and leadership and communication teams to help with messaging and outreach.

Dorrell too emphasized the importance of local efforts to diversify and move forward, saying, “Each community has its own identity and should control its own future.” He said it’s important to understand the unique challenges and resources of each community as described by those who know it best. He also stressed that results are often achieved by luring one small business at a time rather than looking for one large employer to come in and fill a void, which can leave communities vulnerable again in the future if that business also were to close.

Calling attention to a paradox inherent in economic development, Dorrell said, “We have to realize that if we want to stay the same, we’re going to have to change,” meaning that the state’s quality of life can’t be maintained without finding new sources of revenue. “Now is the time to think big and be bold,” he continued, before adding that communities should be thinking big and being bold on a continual basis to be proactive and allow them to weather the storms that come their way.

Following Dorrell’s comments, Gullberg provided a list of other organizations in the state that partner with the WBC on economic development and future opportunities, including the Wyoming Main Street program, the Wyoming Women’s Business Center, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, the Wyoming Business Alliance, the Wyoming Small Business Development Center, Wyoming Manufacturing Works, the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, the Wyoming Nonprofit Network, the Wyoming Economic Development Association, the Wyoming State Chamber of Commerce and the Wyoming Community Foundation.

After all three presentations had concluded, the speakers had an opportunity to answer questions submitted by those in attendance. One such question asked was whether some communities in Wyoming are too small to effectively transition to a new economic future. Roemer responded by saying it’s important to expand the definition of what a community or an ecosystem is by including regional players and industries. Dorrell agreed and said community leaders should “think less about the box that is Wyoming” and think regionally and in terms of connections with neighboring states, particularly those experiencing their own growth.

Another question was about noted trends in young people who may not move for a specific job but instead move for quality of life in an area and then look for a job where they want to live. That question specifically referenced the need for infrastructure and amenities to lure young people to the state to provide a skilled workforce for potential employers and the difficulties in investing in infrastructure development when the state is facing a revenue shortfall. Dorrell acknowledged that can be difficult and said “Sooner or later, something will have to give” in terms of revenue and service provision. He again emphasized the need for broadband access for both people and employers moving into the state, as well as water infrastructure for manufacturing and business opportunities.

All four speakers closed by again stressing the need for local groups to work together to find local solutions and for sustained and ongoing efforts. Gullberg said, “To build resiliency you need continuity and sustained leadership to stick to a vision, that ‘stick-to-it-iveness.” He continued, “Economic development is a marathon with sprints built into it.”



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