Wyoming’s future is inseparable from rural communities

By: 
Khale Lenhart

Several challenges come with regularly writing and commenting on Wyoming politics.  First, it is a challenge to keep from repeating yourself too much.  Real problems are not usually solved overnight, so when I write about what I believe are important issues, I am often tempted to return to the same subjects.  Another challenge is that – with the space limitations associated with writing a regular column – it is difficult to achieve a sufficient level of nuance.  Broad generalities are easier to get across, while details are often the necessary casualties of writing about big issues.

I worry that I may speak too broadly without articulating a clear vision of what I hope Wyoming will be in the future.  With that in mind, I want to give more detail to some of my ideas.  Rather than merely saying that Wyoming needs to have thriving rural communities, focus on broadening our economic base, and support sustainable growth in our larger cities – all of which are absolutely true – I hope to provide more depth and detail on how I hope Wyoming will approach each of those priorities and more.  

Let’s begin with the future of Wyoming’s rural communities.  Wyoming is a rural state and nothing we do is going to change that.  As a rural state, we also have strengths and weaknesses. We have wide open spaces and lots of natural resources.   We also have difficult weather and the wind.  We are a state with a small, spread-out population but lots of room for growth and opportunity.  None of this is going to change, and Wyoming’s character is defined by its rural nature.  It does not matter how big Cheyenne or Casper get, rural communities will always play a major role in our state.  

In fact, Wyoming’s future as a whole is inseparable from that of our rural communities.  A prosperous future for Wyoming requires thriving rural communities.  This means rural areas that are not suffering population loss, are able to support their key industries, and have the ability to support new business opportunities as they arise.  The question for us to consider is how we achieve this future: there are some things that we in Wyoming have control over and some we simply do not.  We do not control global markets.  This means we cannot control coal, oil, gas, or agricultural product prices or demand.  However, we do control how prepared we are to seize the opportunities available to us.  

For Wyoming’s rural communities to thrive, we must have the ability to compete on a level playing field with other similarly situation places.  We must invest in infrastructure so our rural communities have equal access to markets and are not unnecessarily disadvantaged when competing with other communities for jobs and investment.   We need good roads, quality internet and data access, and energy, land, and water.  Some of those we already have (energy and land), while some will take more work to make sure we are prepared.  These are the types of things that our state government should be focusing on if it wants a prosperous future for Wyoming.

We also need other community investments that do not necessarily spring to mind when we talk about “infrastructure.”  The people who live in rural Wyoming do not live here because they want the city life (and if they are, they are not likely to stay for long).  Rather, those who choose to live here want access to the outdoors, the different pace of life, and the sense of self-reliance that comes with rural and small-town life.  However, there are things that may cause otherwise great community members to leave if they are missing.  These additional community resources include access to healthcare and quality education.  Similarly, if rural communities do not allow people to maintain their standard of living, that may also cause them to leave.  Accordingly, when we talk about the investments that must be made in rural communities, we also must think about the things that are necessary to live a good life in the modern world.  

We must remember that government itself cannot create prosperity – only people can. However, government can set the conditions that makes it easier or harder for people to achieve that goal.  If we want rural communities where their best days are ahead of them, we must create the conditions that allow those who want to build their life in rural Wyoming to do so.  We all know what a great place to live Wyoming can be and we should hope that those who share that understanding have the opportunity to experience it as well.  Our state should therefore focus on building the infrastructure to support rural communities, as well as making the community investments to provide the quality healthcare, education, and standard of living that we need to our rural communities to thrive.  If we can do this, Wyoming’s future
is bright.b

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