CASPER, Wyo. — In what direction is Casper’s economy headed? What opportunities are there to support existing industries and encourage innovation moving forward?
How can economic development be facilitated in Wyoming’s second most populous city, sitting at the base of Casper Mountain?
There are some specific answers to these questions; things like the healthcare field, energy markets, advanced manufacturing and the aerospace and defense industry.
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That’s what you’ll hear if you talk with the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance. CAEDA’s new President & CEO Justin Farley will take over for existing President & CEO Charles Walsh effective August 1.
On Thursday, June 13, the two talked about ways to support specific economic initiatives, but keeping sight of the overall picture was on both of their minds.
“We don’t view economic development as just expansion, just innovation, just recruitment,” Walsh said. “We know that if we’re going to try to recruit a high value doctor here, he’s got a spouse and family that is looking at whether they want to move here or not. So quality of life, those lifestyle issues are important in the total, holistic view of this.”
Taking this bird’s eye view of Casper’s economy drives CAEDA’s specific efforts, doing things like providing the first $100,000 in seed funding to bring David Street Station to the community, Walsh added.
But taking a holistic approach doesn’t mean chasing after every fleeting opportunity that glitters in front of you.
“Too often a community or an economic development board wants to be everything to everyone and we’re all out to compete for every new shiny thing that might be coming around,” Farley said.
Farley added that “being very purposeful and specific” with things like efforts to recruit investors and companies to Casper would be part of his focus when he steps into his new role.
Walsh will stay with CAEDA through October to ensure a smooth leadership transition, especially since the alliance has a number of efforts they consider to be important on-going.
That includes working to capitalize on a concept known as economic “opportunity zones”. These are part of a tax incentive plan created by the 2017 Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and are meant to attract investment to low income areas.
The “low income” aspect of this concept can be misleading since even places like downtown Casper are part of some of the opportunity zones in the area.
“It’s not every opportunity zone that’s as attractive as our downtown,” Farley said. “That’s an attractive piece of real estate that wouldn’t ordinarily make an opportunity zone.”
Walsh said that one of CAEDA’s priorities over the next six months centers around work to attract national investors to put money into the four Casper area zones.
“The facts are, once that tax law wasn’t even ink-dry, funds were starting to stand up nationally,” Walsh said. “They’re looking for places to put it. Well, there are opportunity zones in large urban centers like Chicago. So we have to have a story that is better than other stories. “
“We don’t want to compete against Chicago, we want to compete against other, smaller settings. We want to be one of the first that those national investors think about.”
Walsh added that some CAEDA members were invited to a conference in Jackson Hole several months back which was attended by 40-50 large funds. CAEDA identified four or five they’ll actively pursue, and have been working on how to attract those investors.
“We’ve got four phenomenal zones if we are proactive,” he said. “We’ve got to get the projects, the developers and the money lined up. So we’re trying to facilitate that.”
CAEDA aren’t the only ones thinking about economic opportunity zones. The topic came up in discussions to bring a new indoor sports facility to the Platte River Commons.
Walsh brought up another Platte River Commons related topic.
He said that CAEDA has a proposal to transform the existing Wyoming Technology and Business Center, which is located at the PRC, into a entrepreneurial and innovation center.
“We’re working with the Wyoming Business Council to pilot a true innovation center,” Walsh said.
Farley was also up to speed on this project.
“It would be locally operated rather than by [the University of Wyoming,” he said of CAEDA’s proposal.
CAEDA will bring that proposal to the WBC meeting next Thursday, June 20. Walsh said that they’re in initial budget discussions and negotiations with the WBC on that project.
Innovation and diversification are big parts of what the two talked about.
“We have to maintain that mantra of diversification,” Farley said.
That includes things like supporting the development of the wind energy industry in the area and encouraging legislators to be proactive when it comes to setting policy that relates to this.
“We’re still a proponent of wind policy that we worked on two years in a row,” Walsh said. “I believe that we need to be a player. We’ve got the best wind in the country. We need to identify opportunities.”
“There’s several wind projects, I think it’s 130 jobs down in Medicine Bow. There are several wind projects that are going to come online. We believe there are other facets of that industry that we can capitalize on.”
The two also want Wyoming’s traditional energy sector to succeed, but want to ensure that Casper isn’t over-reliant on any one industry. Another thing they’re pushing for is to bring more aerospace and defense manufacturing.
“Aerospace and defense is one of those areas that we’ve been working in a public/private partnership model to build a consortium with our existing manufacturers that have done energy their whole life,” Walsh said.
“Aerospace and defense is a market that is well funded all the time.”
He said that the industry has about $50 million a year of economic activity in Wyoming, dwarfed by the approximately $30 billion in Colorado or $9-plus billion in Utah.
“There are opportunities right in the center of a lot of this,” Walsh continued. “And some of our energy manufacturers have the capacity and the capabilities and the technologies to actually do work in that industry. So it’s a beautiful thing in my mind to recruit that industry here.”
Walsh talked about why CAEDA works to identify specific industries like this rather than general economic development.
“When you’re positioning for limited financial resources, you don’t just go after the financial resources, you go after a cause and a mission,” he said. “We believe that there are assets in each and every region of this state. If it’s agriculture, we’re not going after it. We think that’s better in Powell or Torrington.”
“If we can do something to support their efforts that brings something into the state, everyone wins from that. It’s a win for Wyoming, it’s a win for us.”
“As it relates to healthcare, and medical and it relates to energy markets and advanced manufacturing, we have it here and we need to go after it.”
But going after those industries circles back to Farley’s point about focusing on the livability of Casper.
“Livability too, it’s a big part of the drive that’s currently being done that wasn’t considered a part of economic development in the past,” he said.
“That goes hand in hand with the innovation side of it. A lot of the time, to get capital, or angel investment, they had to travel from outside of the state. Now we’re providing an avenue for entrepreneurs to get stuff to market and keep them here. They’re going to stay because everything they may need will be here.”
Walsh added that CAEDA’s “Breakthrough 307” is one such effort to attract capital to Casper and help entrepreneurs succeed. He hopes Farley will continue to support such efforts.
He has confidence in the CAEDA Board of Directors decision to select Farley.
“I had some input on that,” Walsh said. “I’ve lived here for 13 years. From my observations here, the culture here, if they know you they trust you. So the likelihood of you being successful increases dramatically.”
Farley was previously the director at the Wyoming Small Business Development Center.
“I’ve owned a couple of different businesses,” Farley said. “I have a pretty good understanding of the small business community in Casper right now. How business works, what businesses are here and how to speak their language.”
“I’ve been in their shoes.”
One thing CAEDA is working to do is offer those shoes to younger generations. That’s why they are working toward an entrepreneurial development program geared toward youth.
“It’s like a youth entrepreneurial camp,” Farley said. “Form an idea, form a logo to go with that idea, form a business plan. And starting young, like 12 years old.”
The concept is still in its formative stages, but Walsh said the plan is to involve the school district, including Pathways Innovation Center to ensure that Casper’s youth has a entrepreneurial path laid out before them.
“Personally, I’m really happy with the direction that CAEDA is going and my job is to keep that ball rolling,” Farley said.
Walsh said that Farley will have great support from CAEDA’s board members.
“I think we have a phenomenal board,” he said. “The level of discourse at this board. It’s very advanced, it’s very engaged. There are some great people on this board with vision and commitment to the community. It’s a really awesome thing when you bring them all together.”
Walsh said that he and his wife plan to live in Casper after he leaves CAEDA. He’s contemplating opening a new business, but has not finalized those plans.
Farley is optimistic about the situation he is stepping into.
“Natrona County is in a great place because I think that as you grow the population of the state, it is only logical that you do it through the urban areas,” he said. “Like it or not, Cheyenne and Casper are urban. I think we really have some positive things coming in the future.”
“The beautiful thing about this organization is that it is a team. It’s for the betterment of our community.”