Sweetwater County looks at sustainable growth

Apr 26, 2013

After decades of a boom and bust economy…officials in a town in Southwestern Wyoming believe they may have harnessed the erratic cycle into more sustainable economic growth. Wyoming Public Radio’s Amanda LeClaire has more.

Ambient sound of a shop/ restaurant

AMANDA Le CLAIRE:  It’s well known that during boom cycles here in the west…the jobs…and the money…are easy enough to come by. But with every boom comes a bust and the dark cloud of population loss, unemployment, and falling wages. Here in Rock Springs though…city officials believe that they’ve finally transformed the dreaded boom and bust cycle into slow…sustained growth.

DAVE HANKS:  “No, we’re not really going through a boom right now. What we’re doing is sustainable growth…a boom is when you see things go up 10-15%. Our annual growth in Sweetwater County is between 1-2%..which is good, steady growth and that’s what we like to see.”

Le CLAIRE:  Dave Hanks is the CEO of the Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce. He says that…despite the effects of a multi-year recession across the rest of the country…Rock Springs did not see the same levels of unemployment and the drop in housing prices other cities did. Hanks says that’s in part due to the lessons learned during past decades of sharp growth and sudden stops.

“The good news is that Wyoming and Rock Springs in particular…have been through this many, many times. So we are prepared for that. We know how to adjust, we know what to do. We always build out additional infrastructure to accommodate that. I think the city and the county has done a good job…in anticipating future growth.”

But while Sweetwater County hasn’t been touched as greatly by the last recession…there’s still a danger in relying too heavily on the extraction industry for local jobs. Doug Bunn is an associate professor in economics at Western Wyoming Community College. He says while there’s been some diversification within the natural resources industry itself…it’s not yet enough to guarantee an economy that’s reliably stable. 

LONG:  “I think that everyone would hope that things have improved…that we have seen some diversification a little bit. We still have the same core industries…for the last 10-15 years. Maybe the dependence is a little bit different…it might have diminished the likelihood. It is a little less of an industrial town…we are seeing more retail…so the possibility is that maybe we’ve improved, but we’re far from reaching a diversified economy. I think there’s great hopes for Sweetwater County, but I’m not sure that we’re all the way out of the woods just yet.”

Hanks adds that while traditional booms mean an influx in temporary workers that strain a town’s resources…the good news is that’s not what happened over the last few years in Sweetwater County.  He says the newest residents are often young families who buy homes and become long-term residents. Hanks says that difference brings an economic stability to the region and that’s good for those who come to the area for work in the natural resource industries and for those seeking work in the growing retail and food services. One of the county’s major issues is actually a lack of available employees.

“When you have 600-700 jobs…at one time we had 1000 jobs that were available here. When someone’s paying 12, 13, 15, 18 dollars an hour for an entry level position, it’s hard to keep people working at restaurants and other places. It does have an impact, but what it does is it drives those wages up.”

Hanks says this has forced the retail sector to pay more to compete.  But he notes that the sector still has plenty of job openings.  But those higher wages could play into Rock Springs favor.   According to a new study…paying higher wages in sectors like retail can add a significant boost to the local economy. Catherine Ruestchlin (RUSH-linn) authored the study. She’s a policy analyst at Demos…a New York-based think tank. She says that companies that offer higher-wages to low income workers often see an immediate increase in sales. 

“In a time of low consumer demand, there’s a huge potential for wage increase to stimulate the economy through what we call the multiplier effect. That is, when you raise wages at the bottom, those workers go out and spend their paychecks. That spending becomes somebody else’s income and the business sees their sales improve…then they give someone else more hours and the money goes back into new pockets and around and around the economy that way.”

Ruestchlin (RUSH-linn) says that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics…retail...which includes the food service industry…will grow to be the second largest source of jobs in the U.S. by 2020. Indeed, Hanks notes that they are getting more people moving into the community to take some these retail jobs.   Ruestichlin says if higher entry-level wages continue to become expected in Sweetwater County…it could unexpectedly be a testing ground for a new business model in retail.

For Wyoming Public Radio…I’m Amanda LeClaire in Rock Springs.