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ARCHIVED  June 18, 1999

Gov. Jim Geringer speaks on economic development

Editor’s note: Gov. Jim Geringer was first elected as Wyoming’s governor in 1994 and began his second term in January 1999. A former state senator and representative, Geringer has made economic development a top priority and serves as co-chair of the Wyoming Business Council, the state’s new economic-development arm created last year. Geringer also is the current chair of the Western Governors Association and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, an organization of oil and gas-producing states. He talked about economic development in a recent interview with Dennis E. Curran, who heads The Business Report’s Wyoming Bureau).

Q. Governor, Wyoming’s economy has lagged behind neighboring states in recent years but seems to be picking up. How would you assess the state’s economy today?

A. Slow, steady growth is in many ways preferable to the breakneck growth we’ve seen in adjacent states. The growth, the impact on the community, the impact on culture has strained everyone in the high-growth areas.

If you compared Wyoming, with our largest community being 50,000, to a Phoenix, a Las Vegas, a Denver, it’s just not the same. So our rate of growth ought to be at a slower pace, just because of the nature of the state and the population. But steady growth is good. The alternative is a declining economy, and we don’t anticipate that.

And the highest growth areas, such as business services, technology-related companies, are the areas that we believe will be the future growth in Wyoming ä areas we’d prefer to have the growth in. Wyoming’s economy breaks down into two broad areas — traditional or natural resource-based and then the emerging businesses.

From 1997 to 1998, we had over 1,800 new businesses start up in Wyoming — the highest in several years. We’re still retaining over 60 percent of those startups after five years. They tend to find their market or their niche and develop core competencies and go from there, And if you have 1,800 companies adding one or two people or more, that’s a pretty steady growth rate ä

Q. Looking ahead, where do you see the state’s economy heading?

A. Looking at the two primary sectors, the natural-resource area has very sustainable growth. Slow but sustainable growth in coal. Oil will be its typical cyclical pattern, sometimes more sick than cyclical ä but it’s making a bit of a rebound. Natural gas is the hot play in the Rocky Mountain area and will continue to be for some time.

In the non-natural-resource area, diversification into new growth areas is proceeding quite well with the building of local community capability and the actions of the Business Council. That is leading us into business services, technology-based companies and those that are heavy users of technology ä that need telecommunications, technology and connectivity. It’s those types of companies that we are going to continue to target.

Q. What do you see some of Wyoming’s strengths being? And what might be some of our weaknesses?

A. Our strengths can be some of our own drawbacks. The quality of life, the open spaces, the clean air, the fishable, drinkable waters are that way because there’s not a high density of population. But lack of a high density of population also means that a lot of businesses will struggle initially as they try to establish their profitability.

In a high-density population area, you don’t have near that problem. Yet it’s that very quality that makes Wyoming a desirable place to be. So in some ways, our advantages are our own disadvantages, and I believe we’re finding ways to deal with both.

Q. What do you see as our major economic opportunity?

A. Wyoming can be the expanded workplace for any number of companies ä Individuals, small companies, even medium-sized companies, will be looking to Wyoming as a place to locate because they’re capable of providing services to larger companies.

Connectivity will be the most significant factor in making that work. I see Wyoming as a high-growth area for the explosion of what’s happening on the Internet ä Wyoming becomes no longer an isolated place in the West but a place where people can live, work and enjoy life, because they can serve companies literally around the world, and we’re already seeing that kind of growth occur.

Q. Governor, much of what happens to a state’s economy — and particularly Wyoming’s with our historic natural-resource base — is based on forces beyond your control as governor, but you’ve been very proactive in economic-development activities. How much can you as a governor do to affect the overall state economy, and what are some of the things you’re doing?

A. In terms of economic development, government is the enabler to allow somebody else to do what they do best. And that’s where I see my role as governor — to make sure that the basic capability to build equity is available to a company.

Basic transportation, support services, telecommunications, education, public safety, regulation — those are issues that can be dealt with through government. Once we differentiate those roles of government and the private sector, I think it’s a lot easier to understand why government doesn’t develop the economy, government only enables others to develop the economy.

The governor also has a role in those areas where we have no control but have an advocacy [such as] extractive natural-resource companies and the federal government as the primary landowner and natural-resource owner overall.

I probably spend proportionately more of my time in economic activity as an advocate, almost a cheerleader, ä trying to change federal policies that inhibit our economic growth.

Q. As chair of the Western Governors Association, you talk with your colleagues about economic development. How would you rate Wyoming’s efforts compared to some of our neighbors in the West, in terms of economic-development activities?

A. Wyoming overall has to work a little harder than most of the other Western states, and a lot of it has to do with population density. Wyoming is probably the least-restrictive, lowest-tax, lowest-cost, but our density of population leads to a slower growth rate.

As I talk to some of the other governors, they’re trying to restrain growth, where we’re pushing to have growth happen. And because of that imbalance in how states view economic development, I repeat my often quoted phrase: It’s not whether we will grow, it’s only when and how much.

Q. We’ve talked a lot about your goals for Wyoming and what’s ahead for Wyoming, but I’d like to ask what your personal top priorities for expanding Wyoming’s economy might be?

A. One reason I have such an affection for technology is what it creates as a person’s potential. My overall dream would be that we enhance the potential for success for anyone who wants to go into business and that while I have preferences [for] heavier users of technology, I’m still a person that gets dirt under his fingernails from farming, and I enjoy that indescribable satisfaction of seeing something come from nothing. So any business that is built literally from scratch or from the ground up as a growing, flowering plant or a growing business enterprise — that’s very satisfying.

Q. If you could look ahead to the Wyoming your children will inherit, what kind of a Wyoming would that be?

A. Where their imagination is not limited by anything that government doesn’t do ä As an example, if the limiting factor is an educational system or a communications system. If we have dealt with that, then the person’s potential is unlimited. That’s the future I would look at for my kids — being only limited by their own imagination and initiative. And as we develop education and businesses in Wyoming, we continue to reward innovation and initiative. I guarantee we will grow if we do both of those.

Q. And if you could have one economic-development wish, what might that be?

A. My two highest priorities today are improved telecommunications and improved air service, both critical limiting factors on economic growth in Wyoming. So that’s a near-term goal. My wish would be that we’re always able to deal with the critical limiting factors that today happen to be telecommunications and air service and tomorrow might be another topic. And that we spot the trends early and react in a timely way, because if I have one great frustration with government, it is that it does not understand timeliness. Business succeeds because of timing. Government is never good at sensing when to make a timely decision.

Q. Governor, that pretty much wraps up our questions. Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to expound upon or add?

A. One rather strong trend lately is the rate of personal income growth in the state. For the third quarter of 1998, Wyoming was among the strongest in the nation. I look at that as a bellwether of what’s happening in the state, and I attribute quite a bit of that to the tenacity of people who realize the benefits of being in Wyoming and are determined to make a go of their business and deal with the limiting factors that are here. That’s always been the spirit of Wyoming. We will grow, and we will grow in a quality way ä in key areas that allow people to have quality jobs.

Editor’s note: Gov. Jim Geringer was first elected as Wyoming’s governor in 1994 and began his second term in January 1999. A former state senator and representative, Geringer has made economic development a top priority and serves as co-chair of the Wyoming Business Council, the state’s new economic-development arm created last year. Geringer also is the current chair of the Western Governors Association and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, an organization of oil and gas-producing states. He talked about economic development in a recent interview with Dennis E. Curran, who heads The Business Report’s Wyoming Bureau).

Q. Governor,…

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