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Wyoming tends to its ‘gardening’

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, April 25, 1995

CASPER, Wyo. — Sixty years ago, Mississippi governor Hugh White established a program called Balance Agriculture with Industry. Purpose: To couple Mississippi’s low taxes, cheap land, unskilled labor and low wages with tax abatements and other subsidies — called “incentives” — to entice Northern industries to expand or relocate in the South. With this program, Mississippi is generally regarded to have invented industrial recruitment, smokestack chasing and other beggar-thy-neighbor approaches to economic development. We call these “hunting” strategies — and there was a time, perhaps, when they were appropriate.

At a forum here last week, Wyoming’s new governor, Jim Geringer, unveiled a different approach to economic development called the Wyoming Partnership. Geringer’s approach: To grow new economic activity from within by encouraging new business start-ups or helping existing businesses to expand — a strategy we call “gardening.”

Business guru Tom Peters found a decade ago that high-performance companies are those that build on their strengths, stick to their knitting, and add value to existing activities. That’s also Geringer’s approach to building a high-performance state.

Geringer’s first partnership event looked at energy and minerals (the second will focus on small business) — and for good reason: Energy and minerals production generates more than 50% of the state’s revenues. If energy production goes down, the state has to find new revenue sources or face sharp budget reductions. Though production and revenues are up for coal, trona (soda ash) and natural gas, oil production, a major revenue source, is plummeting. So, Wyoming has a problem, and the governor is focused.

The energy and minerals forum was held in the energy capital of this energy and mineral-rich state. The turnout was impressive: More than 360 business and civic leaders from 18 states doing energy and minerals business in Wyoming.

Instead of giving a speech, the governor spent two days listening to executives, who came prepared to answer questions posed by the governor. Examples:

  • What major obstacles restrain mineral production growth? Answer: Too much bureaucracy. Remedies: Streamline overlapping agency jurisdictions; simplify procedures for tax and audit compliance; stabilize shifting state and federal regulatory requirements; consolidate agencies, functions and reporting requirements, reduce cycle times for decisions.
  • Can the state’s science and technology resources be mobilized more effectively to improve industry performance? Answer: Yes — for example, through improved mechanisms for industry-university collaboration in research agenda-setting.
  • Are there ways to add value to the natural resources produced in the state, rather than shipping out raw materials? Yes — the possibilities include natural gas “sweetening,” coal “beneficiation” (e.g., to create more heat per ton), mine mouth generation to export electricity rather than coal, and development of allied industries (e.g., conveyor technology used in everything from coal to soda pop).

The Wyoming Partnership is a compelling initiative. The buzz in the halls: The new governor is serious about getting results. One example: A proposal to tie state annual appraisals to an employee’s demonstrated commitment to the Partnership’s ethic of “making things work.” That’s a good start.

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