Questions and concerns about Laramie’s economic vitality have circulated through Albany County, and as the city gears up for a post-COVID pandemic grand reopening, a recovery could very well be afoot.
Considering Laramie was experiencing an economic downturn before the pandemic, this optimism — shared by Executive Director Trey Sherwood of Laramie Main Street Alliance (LMSA) — is not without warranted caution.
“As a community, we’re very dependent on the university, the school district and the hospital,” Sherwood said. “When your three largest employers don’t pay property or sales tax, you have a weak economy.”
Sherwood compared Albany County’s budget with that of other counties, stating “You’ll find that (we) have less to spend per person” than most other places in the state. This reality was Laramie’s backdrop entering the pandemic and is a standing issue as it moves into a revitalization of economic restructuring.
Revitalizing, Sherwood said, begins with community engagement or “economic gardening.”
LMSA has always pushed a “support local, shop local” dialogue but this was especially exemplified during the height of COVID.
“Our community rallied around our local businesses like we’ve never seen before,” Sherwood said, adding there was a significant and “phenomenal” shift in consumer spending habits during 2020.
During a May 25 Laramie City Council work session, the Laramie Chamber Business Alliance and LMSA presented its annual reports. Both were largely positive and optimistic after the economic impacts of COVID as reported by the Laramie Boomerang.
Sherwood stressed during the work session that though the pandemic year was extraordinarily difficult, Laramie’s downtown district managed to maintain all of its businesses. Not a single downtown business was lost.
But a continued emphasis on “shop local” and “voting with your dollar” will ensure Laramie’s economic structuring stabilizes and eventually thrives. This consumer behavior must be practiced even in the absence of onset economic risk.
The essence of economic gardening is to promote sustainable, long-term growth through nontraditional initiatives, according to the National League of Cities. Cultivating community engagement through diverse and holistic methods supports vitality. But this is only one way to garden.
Sherwood also practices economic gardening with the 290 locally-owned businesses in the 28-block LMSA district by reaching out directly to business owners and understanding their needs beyond access to capital.
“It’s time for us to listen and observe … what’s happening in the market,” she said. “I like to say we’re in a recovery period … and we want to understand what is the need, so we can work with our partners to customize solutions.”
To promote Laramie’s growth, the Laramie Main Street Alliance’s Economic Restructuring Committee is configuring a strategy to develop apartment complexes downtown above the Big Hollow Co-op grocery store.
Sherwood referenced the city of Laramie housing plan, which was adopted in 2020 and outlined a housing shortage with underutilized or empty second floors. According to the plan — and during the course of a few years — there will be demand for several hundred additional housing units in the downtown district.
“You can’t recruit companies or grow an existing business if there’s nowhere for the workforce to live,” Sherwood said.
The committee is brainstorming ways they can become a developer so they can help Laramie capitalize unused upper-floor space and attract more workforce and innovative people.
Other strategies to protect and grow rural economies like Laramie’s are to take advantage of multiple assets, including human and cultural, which Dr. Jason Shogren, University of Wyoming chair of Natural Resource Conservation and Management in the Department of Economics calls “brain power.”
Lack of diversification directly affects rural economics and causes an unstable and fragile economy, Shogren said.
“(If) you put all your eggs in one basket, and when that basket tips and cracks all your eggs, what are you going to do?” Shogren asked.
Shogren believes Wyoming’s state economy is at a breaking point because it relies primarily on energy to source revenue. In Laramie, the university is at the center of economic vitality in that it is the primary producer of the city’s brain power. But the challenge is convincing the problem-solvers, critical thinkers and innovators to stay in a small community.
Sherwood referenced the latest census data on Laramie’s demographics, which revealed a significant loss of 18- to 24-year-olds during the past few years.
“The pipeline of talent from UW (needs) a pathway for entrepreneurs coming out of UW to stay,” she said. She added its equally important to find ways to retain human assets as it is to recruit them.
To combat this leakage, Shogren suggests investing in local entrepreneurs as well as fine and liberal artists.
“Arts attract smarts,” he said, because quirky, out-of-the-box artists tend to seek audience with intellects and vice versa.
“That feeds on each other,” Shogren said.
He added that type of energy — another form of economic gardening — attracts outsiders who will potentially see value in the city and establish roots.
Shogren believes it is important to attract thinkers and innovators who connect with the community and offer a genius that will propel its economy forward.
“You have to make it attractive for business to come,” he said.
One way to do this, Sherwood said, is to develop a façade grant program that will leverage financial resources and allow businesses to make physical improvements to their buildings.
“(About) 70% of new customers walk into a business based on the way the exterior of the building looks,” Sherwood said, quoting a presentation at a National Mains Street Alliance conference she had attended.
It may seem vain, but a window display, peeling paint or weeds instead of flowers influences a potential customer’s decision to spend their money at an establishment.
Sherwood and Shogren believe Laramie must capitalize its creative and cultural economy and invest in its problem solvers because ultimately they are the ones who drive economy.