Lenhart: Wyoming’s cities need support to thrive

By: 
Khale Lenhart

We are in the political doldrums between the high-energy primary election in August and what likely will be a low-event Wyoming general election in November.  Accordingly, it is a fitting time to return to my vision of what the future of our state might look like.  Rather than focusing on rural communities as I did in June, I want to instead look at the future of Wyoming’s

urban areas.

Census numbers unequivocally show that Wyoming’s population is getting more concentrated in its cities and towns.  Over half of our state population lives in our twelve largest cities.  The population of our three largest cities combines to nearly 27% of state population, and that is just the people within city limits.  If you consider metro areas, the five largest metro areas account for over half of our state population.  Contrary to what many may expect, Wyoming’s population is primarily located in cities.  

Accordingly, even though our heritage and mindset are unquestionably rural, we need to recognize that our urban areas also need our support.  Nationwide, urban areas are growing much faster than rural areas.  This holds true for Wyoming as well and presents a different set of challenges.  Instead of focusing on how to avoid population loss, 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 that are growing our communities are contributing to a healthy community?  All of these are necessary questions that our cities and towns must contend with as new people move in.

Our cities have the potential to be significant economic drivers.  Wyoming cities have access to transportation hubs, natural resources, and an advantageous tax climate that can make them attractive to businesses that will help fuel urban growth and success.  However, we also have obstacles.  For our cities to thrive, they need a skilled workforce, affordable housing, infrastructure – especially water – and the amenities that make cities 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 already an arid state and issues of water access cause significant concerns as is.  Water projects are also not quick to complete, so our state would do well to put additional focus on how to provide our growing communities with sufficient water 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 that our cities are places that 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 not competing with just the next town or state over anymore.  Instead, people have options to move nationwide to fit their preferences.

Although there has been progress, our cities still lag behind when it comes to 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 found and grow those types of businesses.  

Although we have a generally friendly tax climate, we have too many bureaucratic obstacles to starting small businesses.  Streamlining that process and removing outdated regulations like many of our liquor license caps would provide a more welcoming environment for entrepreneurs in our cities.  This is a problem that we can try to solve here at home by setting 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 alright 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 acknowledge that our cities are the prime economic drivers of our state.  Most Wyomingites live in our cities, and the percentage is growing.  They 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.

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