Plan for post-COVID recovery, says economist

May 6, 2020 By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Municipalities in Wyoming are preparing for 20 percent budget cuts next year, citing the combined impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and a declining minerals industry, local officials said.

"We're just going to have to reorganize, change things, and hope we can fill those gaps," said Riverton Mayor Richard Gard,

Lander assistant mayor Rajean Strube-Fossen said she participated in recent call with city administrators in the state, most of whom quoted the 20 percent number.

Others were looking at 25 percent cuts, she told a Fremont County Association of Governments meeting,

'Two major storms'

FCAG heard a presentation from Roger Coupal, a community development specialist at the University of Wyoming, who recommended strategies for "post-COVID recovery" in Fremont County.

Coupal addressed the recent dive in the oil prices.

"You, like a lot of other energy dependent counties and states, have sort of been hit by two major storms," Cuopal said.

He did note that at least oil prices had risen above $0 after falling into negative digits in recent days.

"That's good," Coupal said. "We'd like it to be better, but that's still good. ... But it does suggest a lot of uncertainty."

The coronavirus presents even more unknowns, he said.

"Everybody's trying to figure out for now what to expect," he said, pointing to record unemployment claims and the closures of local businesses as a result of the pandemic.

"This has become a very difficult thing for counties and communities to deal with."

New economies

While oil, gas and tourism are in decline, Coupal suggested local leaders could spend time focusing on new opportunities for growth.

For example, in Fremont County, where the rivers fill with snowmelt runoff every spring from the surrounding mountain tops, Coupal said water might be a marketable commodity for growers of "value-added crops" or "high-value herbs and fruit."

Another idea: commercial trout.

"The largest commercial trout industry in the United States is just across (the way) into the Upper Snake River in Idaho, and that's because of the water," Coupal said.

"Why couldn't we do that? We've got good water, we've got clean water, and we've got trout."

Fremont County's residents represent another asset that could be leveraged in order to support the local economy, Coupal said, recalling working with local residents who are internationally recognized experts in land reclamation - the process that takes place after mining is complete.

"The reclamation sector in Fremont County is pretty well-known across the world," Coupal said. "How do we build those resource ... in a way that hires people and puts them back to work?"

There will be more opportunities for new growth once the coronavirus pandemic eventually ends, too, Coupal said, guessing that people throughout the country will be looking to travel once quarantine restrictions are lifted.

"There's pent up demand right now," he said. "People want to get out."

Fremont County could find ways to attract more of those tourists, Coupal said.

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon had a similar idea in mind during a press when he noted that COVID-19 - which has hit big cities "pretty strongly" - might prompt some urban residents to consider relocating their homes and businesses to less-populated areas.

"What sorts of new enterprises can be brought into Wyoming?" he wondered. "What are those opportunities? How can we be attractive, and how can we be helpful?

"This is really a formative time for Wyoming in so many ways, and I think it's important we have our eyes open and look toward our future."

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