When the recent population figures for Wyoming were released earlier this spring, they showed a dramatic drop -- more than 8,000 people had left the state in total during the energy bust that began two years ago. That was the largest fall since 1989 and translated to a roughly 1 percent decline in the number of Cowboy State residents.
But the population loss was not uniform. Eight counties actually saw a slight increase in residents, while a handful of others -- Campbell, Weston, Niobrara -- lost more than 3 percent of residents.
The divide wasn't quite rural versus urban. Natrona County bled 1.7 percent while Cheyenne and Laramie, in the southeast corner of the state, saw modest growth of 0.4 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively. Likewise, Sublette County fell 2 percent while neighboring Lincoln County grew 1 percent.
Much of the difference within Wyoming can be explained by jobs. Regions heavily dependent on the energy industries were hit hardest and more stable areas like Laramie County -- with many government jobs and other assets -- were insulated. The northwest corner of the state, reliant on tourism during a period of strong economic growth nationwide, escaped the toll taken on places like Gillette.
On a broader level, though -- that in which all of Wyoming is just "one small town with really long streets" -- economists say the state’s rural nature has hurt its ability to retain residents and build a skilled workforce.
Jobs head to cities
Economic growth in Wyoming's neighboring states of Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Montana has made it difficult for Wyoming to hold onto -- or recruit -- residents when the local economy is struggling. Colorado, Utah and Idaho both have unemployment rates about 1 percentage point below the already-low national average. They also have economies built around metropolitan centers like Denver, Salt Lake City and Boise, as well as booming smaller cities like Fort Collins and Bozeman.
Mark Haggerty, a researcher at Montana-based Headwaters Economics, said in an interview earlier this year that the population shift away from rural regions of the country, including Wyoming, and toward metropolitan areas has been driven by growth in “innovation jobs,” like software development, that rely on a critical mass of similar companies.
“Cities are the places that are growing,” Haggerty said.
That’s partially because even if a city like Casper or Cheyenne is able to attract a handful of well-paying jobs in industries that rely on high levels of education and advanced technology, it’s hard to generate long-term growth without bringing many similar companies to town.
“Despite the internet and information technology promising that geography is dead, exactly the opposite has happened,” Haggerty said. “New economic sectors demand closer proximity and people need to be able to get out and see their clients.”
Awareness of issue
This is an issue that has drawn the attention of Gov. Matt Mead’s economic diversification initiative, Endow, and the failure to keep residents in the state has come up during presentations to the Legislature.
“We’re faced with a number of troubling population trends,” Jerimiah Rieman, Mead’s representative to Endow, told lawmakers last summer.
The challenges of Wyoming’s rural nature were highlighted during that meeting. Rieman helped present a socioeconomic report that showed only two cities in Wyoming -- Casper and Cheyenne -- had at least 90,000 residents within a 60-mile radius. That metric is important, the report stated, because workers are generally willing to commute roughly 60 miles to work and new businesses can expect to draw roughly 1 employee for every 300 people in a population. If Wyoming hopes to attract a critical mass of new businesses, it will be hard to attract them to regions without a ready workforce, including much of the state outside Natrona County and the southeast corner.
While the report found much room for growth in the arena of so-called “innovation jobs,” it also painted a rough picture of the challenges ahead for Wyoming in attracting such work.
“(L)ack of amenities to attract millennial talent, lack of skilled workforce,” and lack of reliable internet were all listed as obstacles to bringing a slice of the booming tech and "knowledge" industry to Wyoming.
Concerns of change
But the idea of extending the Front Range to Cheyenne or Casper, or of converting Lander into the next Bozeman, doesn’t sit right with some in Wyoming. Fears of losing the state’s culture often follow close on the heels of any discussions about urbanization or seeking to draw more workers to the region.
“It just seems like you gotta be a Wyoming guy to live in Wyoming,” said Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland.
But many advocates of diversification don’t see how the state can attract more high-paying and stable jobs without risking some loss of historic character. State Treasurer Mark Gordon, who is running for governor, said he thinks a balance is possible -- and that there have been many positive evolutions for Wyoming over the years.
“People go, ‘Look I think this state is fine just the way it is -- I don't want the population to grow.’ But they also don't remember what it was like ... when we had gravel on our football fields, when we didn't have snow plows,” Gordon said. “People like living in a place where they can get a good meal and a cup of coffee.”
Gordon also believes that even if the state does everything right to diversify the economy and attract new jobs, Greear's point will remain true. It'll be guys and gals with a disposition toward Wyoming's way of life that will settle here.
“Wyoming has its own wonderful buffering system,” Gordon said. “You’re going to end up attracting people who are more independent.”