CHEYENNE – Brendan Ames has been asked one question a lot since he joined city staff in January: What exactly do you do?
With a background in real estate and marketing, the graduate of Cheyenne’s Central High and the University of Southern California is the city’s first chief economic development officer.
He said his job is two-fold: ensuring city planners are communicating with developers and being flexible on regulations – two qualities developers have criticized the city for lacking in the past – and following up with businesses interested in building in or expanding to the city, and connecting them with incentives and other resources.
“Every single day is different ...” Ames said. “Part of it is research, part of it is knowing Cheyenne, listening to developers and business owners. But part of it is listening to staff internally and bridging everyone together in understanding what is best for Cheyenne – what do we need and how can we grow?”
And when Ames means “grow,” he means growing business by recruitment, expansion and retention.
“I have to be informed, then be able to react quickly and understand what somebody needs, what they are looking for,” he said.
Ames said he looks at new properties that are on the market, fields emails and phone calls and helps people who walk in to his office on the third floor at the city’s Municipal Building, whether referred internally from Building Department or someone externally.
But the city’s main goal is to become “business-friendly,” and to provide developers and business owners with the best road map to get through the city’s permitting process.
“That means a lot of things,” he said. “I get questions about our permitting process. I also get questions about incentives and what money is available, what is out there and what can we go after.”
There’s criticism from local developers that the city has fallen short on the business-friendly goal, he said.
“We’ve taken some heat, and sometimes people say the city gets in the way,” he said. “One of the things (Mayor Marian Orr) told me was to make sure we didn’t get in the way – clear the path so that we can be known as developer-friendly and business-friendly.”
What business-friendly means, he said, is different for every scenario.
Sometimes it’s sitting down with somebody and asking what they need, then meeting with the city’s building, engineering and planning staff to brainstorm the best strategy for a path forward. Sometimes it’s eliminating the red tape.
“It’s a work in progress, but I will say that we’re truly getting there,” he said. “We’ve gone through some strategic planning. We’re starting to map out what is (involved in) the process. Sometimes there’s that barrier that no one has created, but I’m trying to be the conduit, so that everyone can be happy and there’s open communication, and we can get can get some things done in Cheyenne.”
Dale Steenbergen, president and CEO of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce, said six months into Ames’ tenure, the process isn’t perfect, “but compared to the previous mayoral administration, it’s 1,000% better.”
“I won’t tell you that the process is perfect, but I will tell you they are working on the problem,” Steenbergen said. “I think the big difference is that every single human being that I’ve sent to the city who had an issue, there was at least somebody there to try to solve the issue.”
Steenbergen said the city’s progress toward the goal of obtaining that business-friendly reputation must continue to move forward. He added that the city needs to continue being flexible with regulations for developers and business owners.
“I’m pleased that they are making progress, but that progress has to continue. I’ve told the mayor and Brendan that, too. We need to keep rolling down this road. We need to keep getting better and better.”
Steenbergen said he’s working to implement a program where a group of contractors will sit down with city leaders on a quarterly basis to determine where there are problems and help find solutions.
Ames said he took the position to see those shortcomings and challenges firsthand.
“I want to see if there’s anything I can do help fix it,” Ames said. “I want to be part of the process and understand what is happening with the city. What I figured out is that sometimes these barriers actually aren’t that big. It’s purely communications.”
Similar to Steenbergen’s idea, Ames said he wants to conduct seminars with real-estate agents, developers and business owners to explain how the Unified Development Code and the permitting process work.
“If you’re going to apply for this, here are your steps,” he said. “We want to make sure people have the correct road map. We found that in some projects, people submit the wrong document or it’s not quite right or certain things don’t match up right, and the timeline gets pushed back. It’s not that we’re doing anything wrong, but it was communications. We want to make sure that we’re outlining it in its entirety for everyone from the very beginning.”
Orr said the goal is to get businesses to say “yes.” She added that Ames’ job “is make sure that the process is as streamlined as possible in that developers and business owners essentially have one person they need to (see to) get that work done.”
“He has completely fulfilled that mission,” she said.
Ames works with Cheyenne LEADS, the economic development corporation for Cheyenne and Laramie County, which is involved with larger industrial manufacturing industry projects.
He also serves as the lead person for business retention, expansion and attraction with Forward Greater Cheyenne, a partnership among government officials and local economic development organizations, including the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce, Cheyenne LEADS, the Downtown Development Authority and Visit Cheyenne.
Ames said conversations with Cheyenne LEADS have included business acquisitions, what’s happening nationally and how those purchases affect local companies.
Anja Bendel, director of business development for Cheyenne LEADS, said the organization and Ames have begun coordinating visits with existing businesses and conducting conversations on issues that can be beneficial or problematic to businesses.
“As we’re talking to businesses across the community, we can get an understanding then of what common things they need,” Bendel said. “It can be specific assistance to one business or if hearing things from many, then we know there needs to be a broader community approach.”
When talking to business owners who express interesting in starting or moving to Wyoming, Ames said his sales pitch includes telling them that “Cheyenne is a bit of a hidden gem.”
“We’re very tax-friendly. We’re experiencing population growth above and beyond what Cheyenne has experienced previously, while the rest of the state is experiencing negative net migration. We’re truly at the center of what’s happening, especially in logistics. We’re close to larger cities, but if you don’t want to live in a larger city, we can provide a more relaxed lifestyle.”