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ARCHIVED  June 18, 1999

Casper economy shows signs of improvement

CASPER, Wyo. — Increases in federal spending, special construction projects and a jump in retail have driven a 2 percent surge in Casper, Wyo.’s local economy during the last year.

“The numbers say yes, we are doing better,´ said Greg Detweiler, senior economist with the Wyoming Department of Employment Research and Planning Division.

Detweiler calls the gains “significant,” but he is only cautiously optimistic when asked whether the indicators portend sustained growth.

“I am seeing companies surviving in a special-project environment right now,” Detweiler said, referring to a flurry of construction funded by a large infusion of money that came when Congress passed the largest appropriation for highway projects in years. “You’re seeing good growth numbers, but special projects end.”

Detweiler said that Wyoming’s economy, in general, is somewhat dependent on federal money. “If that ever decreases, it will affect Wyoming as well as Casper,” he said.

Construction in and around the city climbed 12.5 percent after a mild winter gave companies an early start on several major projects. The finishing touches are now being added to the new Boise Cascade Call Center, renovations are under way on the Wyoming Medical Center, and the city and state are busy with multiple road and street projects.

Detweiler notes that although mining, oil and gas are down sharply over last year, that industry is surviving on special projects as well. Last year, 600 jobs were added in the industry, but declines in prices for oil, coal, uranium and nonmetallic mining have slowed overall growth. A rebound in the price of oil is not expected to affect the descent of what once was the major driver of Wyoming’s economy.

Todd Ennenga, Casper Area Chamber of Commerce executive director, says that retail membership in the chamber is up, and interest from those wishing to relocate to the city has nearly doubled compared with this time last year.

“It looks like we’re getting a definite increase in the number of new retail businesses,” he said. “Obviously, retail is performing well right now. We’re seeing small businesses adding one or two employees, and we’re getting more labor and wage questions.”

The numbers bear out Ennenga’s observations. This month’s Wyoming Labor Force Trends, the state employment publication, notes that Natrona County has posted the largest ever annual gain in the service sector in the last six months. The publication reports that telemarketing firms in Casper, Laramie and Cheyenne added more than 1,300 new jobs to the state, and department stores, food, apparel and accessories posted a steady gain of 200 new jobs.

Ennenga said that two new large employers are building psychological confidence in the community and generating very real construction dollars.

“A large employer has a tremendous effect,” Ennenga said. “Amoco’s leaving was devastating, but we now have Boise Cascade coming back in with 500 employees. These large payrolls make a tremendous difference.”

Boise Cascade Call Center manager Louis Miller said that when the office-product supplier is fully staffed, he expects a $7 million payroll. He says the company is very aware of what a large employer means to Casper and takes its role in this small economy very seriously.

“We have a big sense of responsibility in Casper,” Miller said. “We’ve interviewed over 800 applicants (for jobs) and know that people clearly feel this.”

Ennenga says the addition of Ross University Medical School will compound the impact of Boise Cascade. He credits some of the increase in relocation inquiries to students anticipating the opening of the university.

Although the city has yet to feel the direct impact of the addition of two major employers, the sense of excitement among area businesses is palpable, Ennenga said.

“The opening of Boise Cascade in and of itself is large, but layer Ross on top of that, and we have $19 [million] or $20 million that we didn’t have a year ago,” he said. “It adds stability to the economy and gives the community a psychological boost.”

Natrona County, and Casper in particular, have attracted a record number of new business formations in the last four years. A total of 209 startup companies opened their doors in 1997. The increase closely follows a statewide trend, with most of the distribution in services, construction and retail trade.

A continuing frustration to economic-development organizations is that the manufacturing sector seems to be stalled. The completion of contracts in the durable-goods sector has the Wyoming Business Council scrambling to jump-start existing manufacturing companies with federal grants and redoubling their efforts to lure more companies to the Cowboy state.

One significant growth pattern has kept real estate professionals busy over the last 11 months: The gain in retirees returning to the state was a little unexpected, but welcome, Detweiler said.

“Our population estimates say the number of people already here is not increasing. The real estate clients are individuals who are returning to the state after making their money elsewhere.”

Two hundred new jobs in education since February have accounted for much of the increase in the government sector of the economy. Detweiler says state and local government has remained stable throughout the last year, and is expected to stay that way.

Ennenga believes that although Casper is not growing as quickly as comparably sized communities in surrounding states, businesses are hopeful that the cyclical nature an oil-based economy demands is smoothing out.

“There is a taste that things are getting better,” he said. “[Businesses] like the taste and want more. They are thinking that maybe we’re not going to be tied to that boom-and-bust scenario anymore.”

More importantly, the community is taking a more-active role in recruiting new businesses to the area and cultivating a culture of optimism, Ennenga said. “It’s water cooler talk. There is a demand. There is expectancy,” he said. “They are demanding that progress happens in whatever form it is going to take and expecting things to happen.”

CASPER, Wyo. — Increases in federal spending, special construction projects and a jump in retail have driven a 2 percent surge in Casper, Wyo.’s local economy during the last year.

“The numbers say yes, we are doing better,´ said Greg Detweiler, senior economist with the Wyoming Department of Employment Research and Planning Division.

Detweiler calls the gains “significant,” but he is only cautiously optimistic when asked whether the indicators portend sustained growth.

“I am seeing companies surviving in a special-project environment right now,” Detweiler said, referring to a flurry of construction funded by a large infusion of money that came when Congress…

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