Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series looking at local economic development, challenges Evanston and Uinta County face and what local leaders are doing to help attract outside businesses while supporting businesses already in the area.
EVANSTON — When Weatherby, a well-known firearms manufacturer currently based in Paso Robles, California, announced on Jan. 23, from the SHOT Show in Las Vegas while streaming live on Facebook, that it had chosen Sheridan as its future headquarters, it was a secret well kept for quite some time.
Few knew that the company was considering Wyoming at all. Even local officials responsible for economic development didn’t know — even after Evanston had made a short list to land the company.
City and county officials did know, however, that they’d made it to a “shorter list,” Evanston City Clerk Amy Grenfell, who also serves on the Uinta County Economic Development Commission, said. They just didn’t know the name of the company.
It’s very common, Grenfell said, for companies looking to expand or relocate to request anonymity as they search for the place that best suits them.
That lead, as several do each year, came from the Wyoming Business Council, which Grenfell said does a lot of preliminary work after it receives a lead. And the information provided to communities that might be suitable for the company? Very little, Grenfell said.
“When we get a lead … they’re so generic, which is frustrating on our part,” she said. “… It’s always given a code name. … The company name is confidential; contact name, all of that is confidential. It will give a very brief project description.”
Often leads will include an average wage and give general information about what type of people they would have to hire. One lead from April of last year called “Project Cloud” said they typically require employees with four-year degrees and that they would consider moving to an existing facility or could build something new. The lead for Project Cloud said it would be an IT-based call center and office.
“So this gives us an idea that maybe there’s going to be some zoning challenges that we might have,” Grenfell said. “So we can propose those things that would be appropriate for this particular use.”
That lead, though not all do, also gave an idea about the size of building the company would need — 10,000 to 20,000 square feet.
“And then sometimes, depending on the industry or what they are,” Grenfell said, “their utility needs could be very unique. In this case (Project Cloud) they weren’t. But sometimes we’ve seen them come in where they’ve got significantly huge electricity needs, and we would have to make sure that we can propose a location that would provide that or that we could get that kind of electricity to them.”
Grenfell said even a little information, can help local officials sort out how they should respond to the lead, customizing each lead the best they can.
“Like with this one,” Grenfell said, referring to a lead, “commercial air service was a big deal, but interstate, rail service, all of those things come into play. But again, very generic. There’s not a lot of information in here. … We don’t know where they’re coming from, we don’t know what their current operations are, we don’t know — we don’t know.”
College was key factor
Dr. Susan Bigelow, the vice president for external relations and economic development for the Northern Wyoming Community College District, which includes Sheridan College and Gillette College, said Sheridan has been preparing for years to attract companies like Weatherby, and when they received the lead nearly two years ago, they were ready. A big part of that has been college officials and city officials working hand in hand, and working with a joint powers board — Sheridan Economic and Education Development Authority (SEEDA), which was formed more than 10 years ago.
She said the college has played a large role in economic development because it helps to offer a workforce educated in areas that Wyoming companies — or companies that could potentially move to Wyoming — are looking for.
She said members of the Wyoming Business Council brought Weatherby officials to the college, and that was where her involvement began for that specific lead.
“It was clear they were interested in some of the college’s manufacturing programs,” Bigelow said, “especially our machining programs. The college has focused on providing a skilled workforce that aligns with our local economic needs, both at our Sheridan campus and Gillette extension.”
Bigelow said she was the economic development director in Campbell County for a decade.
“I found that a trained workforce is really the key to economic development,” she said.
Bigelow said the college’s partnerships with the City of Sheridan and the Wyoming Business Council is invaluable.
“I think our partnership with the state is excellent,” she said. “I can’t say enough about it.”
Although Bigelow said Sheridan was well prepared for the Weatherby lead, she said it’s not about Sheridan beating out other Wyoming cities. The move was a win for all of Wyoming.
“Sheridan did not attract Weatherby,” she said. “Wyoming attracted Weatherby, and they chose Sheridan.”
WBC plays important role
Grenfell said the WBC plays an important role in the economic development of Evanston and other Wyoming communities.
“They’ve got business development people who are going to trade shows and [who] are going to try to find businesses that might have an interest in Wyoming,” she said. “Or sometimes those businesses are coming to the Wyoming Business Council’s website and asking questions and they’re (WBC) the first people to engage with them.”
She said the purpose of the WBC’s lead process is to establish the business council as the first gateway so companies don’t have to duplicate work and ask 15 different communities the same questions.
“When the business council can be the first level of that, they can get people pointed in the right direction,” Grenfell said. “They can ask the questions one time and share it with all the other communities. … They have a strategic plan where they actually have some targeted industries that they are specifically looking at to try to help reinforce the need to diversify Wyoming’s economy.”
She said the WBC leads are just a small part of the city’s and county’s overall effort to bolster the economy.
“We are not putting all of our eggs in one basket,” Grenfell said. “That would be foolish to do.”
Teaming up with neighboring communities
Uinta County has also teamed up with Kemmerer to help get some direction for development.
“We’ve got a planning grant application out with the state right now on a targeted market study, and so we’re hoping to get some funds for that,” Grenfell said. “We’ve asked for approximately $60,000 for that study. And what we’re hoping for from that is that instead of us thinking, ‘Oh, this might be a good idea,’ or ‘Oh, this is what our local strategic plan is saying, that we all came up with,’ this gives us another set of eyes. And it helps us define maybe a better approach or a more targeted approach or at least an aligned approach, so that we’re not just throwing arrows. Because sometimes I feel like — we don’t want to do that — and sometimes it feels like we’ve ended up doing that.”
She said the grant will help local officials to be more proactive in their efforts to recruit certain types of companies to southwest Wyoming.
“It’s going to help us narrow it down,” she said, “and help us narrow it down on some specific industries that would maybe be a good fit here — versus us saying, ‘Yeah, we’ll take all industries.’ This will help us narrow it down so that our efforts are much, much more effective.”
Uinta County Planning and Development Director Gary Welling said the study would help give local officials a more common focus, maybe on something they’re not even seeing. He gave an example where a common focus would have helped.
“We met for putting up a sign,” he said. “What should the billboard say for economic development? Well there were three of us, and we had three different ideas of what Evanston is and what Uinta County is and what we should be promoting. And that’s just three [people]; if we opened it up to the whole group there’d be 10 different ideas.”
“I bet there’s 12,000 different ideas...” Grenfell interjected.
“But we only have one shot,” Welling continued. “So let’s focus so we get it right — so we’re not just spending money then think, ‘Well, that didn’t work out.’
Grenfell said the city and county are currently pursuing a lead with Sweetwater County and southern Lincoln County, using a regional approach. She said the lead requires a large workforce, so they had to respond as a region.
“It’s just so large that we’re not the only ones doing the regional approach,” she said. “Wyoming is not a highly populated state, so let’s pull together all of our resources and do some really great things.”
She said that lead is for a company in the transportation manufacturing business.
“And the reason we’re looking regional is because they would consider one large … huge building, or their business has different segments, apparently, where they could do different segments of the business in different locations.”
Grenfell said that’s the first time she’s been involved in that type of response to a lead.
“And that’s a good feeling, it really is,” Welling said. “It’s good to [include] some of our neighbors because I think sometimes we just look right here in Evanston or right here in Uinta County and think our borders don’t go anywhere — they do. People travel for work. People shop around. They travel on I-80 and we’re a well-traveled community, a well-traveled state. So why would we not capitalize on some of those things that Kemmerer’s good at, or that Rock Springs and Green River’s good at to be more regional?”
Grenfell said officials haven’t heard anything further about the regional lead, which they responded to in mid-February, but it could open the door for more future cooperation.
“The regional approach has led to other conversations with Sweetwater and Lincoln counties about how we can work more with each other when it comes to other economic development opportunities,” she said.