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Campbell County's federal funding request for an industrial park has been denied

Gillette, Wyoming seen from Overlook Park
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An elevated view of Gillette.

The Campbell County Commission submitted an application that would have helped with the lion's share of funding for the proposed Pronghorn Industrial Park just east of Gillette. But the county was informed the application has been denied by the Economic Development Agency's Coal Communities Commitment program.

Commissioner Rusty Bell says that the county submitted its application to the program in late September. Their request totaled more than $11 million.

"Campbell County is as coal-reliant as far as numbers of jobs [and] tonnage of coal as any place in the country," Bell said. "We decided that we would just put in for the whole amount. They divide that out by region and then they appropriate this much for the funding cycle. And really you're in the works to apply for about $24 million, so really our ask was for almost half of that."

The denial doesn't necessarily come as a surprise to the county. Bell said that there were concerns that what they were asking for was ultimately too sizeable.

"Most likely, even though our application looked good and that we had committed beneficiaries for the site, that it probably was going to get kicked out because it was just too big of an ask," Bell said. "It wasn't a surprise to us—[but] disappointing, yes."

In addition to the size of the request, another major issue that the county encountered was how the Coal Communities Commitment program defines "coal-reliant".

"The definition for coal-reliant community is so broad that anybody who has any kind of fingerprint in coal, or they’re funded by tax payments from coal—whether they actually have coal jobs in the area—doesn't really mean that they're the only ones that can be put in for [these] dollars," Bell said. "They're going to spread it so thin that it’s going to be difficult for it to make a big difference for any community that's actually coal impacted."

Even with the denial, there are still plans to move forward with the industrial park.

"We're trying to make these areas and this industrial park available for those businesses looking to expand or looking to come to Campbell County and need a shovel-ready site," he said. "[It's] similar to what we've seen in Cheyenne and in Sheridan where they have these business parks that have filled up very fast because they've had the dollars to put those in and have them ready to go."

Funding could come from several different sources, including other grants from organizations such as the Wyoming Business Council. Bell said that the county has applied to the Council in the recent past, though they were turned down likely due to the fact that construction had not yet begun, and the project was not ready. There were also no "committed beneficiaries" then, a term Bell says means companies that have committed to the project. Now that two local companies have stated their commitments, Bell said they may need to help fund the site as well.

"I think that's something we need to go back to, those companies and that industry that said 'yeah, we want to be a committed beneficiary' [and] we say 'can you help then? You want to sign a contract, you help with the lot buildout or something.' I think there's some potential there to have a public-private partnership, too," Bell said.

A revised application and having committed beneficiaries could mean that this may be a potential source of funding. Bell said that if the county reapplied to the Council, they would be asking for more than they did previously, which was approximately $390,000. A new application would not only request more funding, but may see if matching funds would be a possibility.

The Coal Communities Commitment may also be a future source of funding as well, despite the recent denial. Bell said that paring down the county’s request may help in obtaining these funds. While this could help in moving the project forward, it also means that a phased in approach might have to be taken.

"We've kind of been given this $3 million number since that grant was denied that, 'hey, don't ask for anything more than three,'" Bell said. "We have to figure out how to phase in a project that's $12 to $14 million when the most you're going to get from one or the other is three."

Other problems may present themselves with a phased approach, such as how matching funds are obtained.

"We decide we want to do $3 million of work. Once you've completed the work, you can’t use it as a matching," Bell said. "It's kind of crazy, you can use it as matching funds before you do the work, but if you actually go and do the work yourself, it can't be used as a match."

Bell said that the county does have funds available that can be used in the development of the industrial park and that it may look at possibly selling off county-owned properties to help with this. He said the county would consider the pros and cons of this and make a decision as to whether it would be prudent to do so. Any sale of county-owned property must follow specific rules to ensure that interested buyers are all treated fairly in the process. Ultimately, this can take some time.

"We're discussing putting everything out there that could be a possibility," Bell said. "Trying to figure out what you're going to sell and the policy for actually selling a property if you have a little lot somewhere you want to sell. Are you actually going to make enough money to make a difference? If you make $100,000, yeah it's $100,000 but can you do that in the amount of time that you need the money to make the match? Does it make sense? Those are the questions we're asking. What makes the most sense and how can we get this project started?"

Ideally, the project would begin sooner rather than later. Bell said that having a dedicated area, such as the industrial park, is something that Gillette is lacking.

Campbell County has also applied for two previous grants, both of which have been unsuccessful. The first was in 2015 and the second in 2020.

"It just wasn't ready for prime time, [the first application] was a little early. The last one was 2020 and that was an EDA grant that was a phased-in approach that was denied because the CARES dollars or whatever we applied for it for EDA. They just said it didn't qualify."

Bell felt that if this latest denial had taken a phased-in approach, it would have been successful. Nonetheless, he said that the commission will continue to pursue different options and initiatives that they feel are beneficial.

"We're going to continue forward with what we think is best for the future of Campbell County."

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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