State to help coal communities compete for economic diversification funds

Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile.com photo The Jim Bridger Power Plant in Sweetwater County. Rocky Mountain Power plans to convert two of the plant’s four coal units to natural gas.

WYOMING -- The Wyoming Energy Authority and Wyoming Business Council have joined forces to help coal communities compete for federal stimulus dollars aimed at diversifying their economies. 

The move comes after some complained about a lack of state-level involvement in the competitive grant processes that require applicants to demonstrate regional coordination to qualify for the federal funds.

“We’ve taken that very much to heart because that is our role: to be able to provide that support and collaboration,” Wyoming Energy Authority Program Director Anja Bendel said. “So we’re taking a much more visible, active role.”

Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal producer, ranks high among coal regions targeted by the federal stimulus programs, according to federal officials. Coal mining, which has helped buoy state revenue for decades, and is a primary funding source for K-12 and secondary education, has been in decline for more than a decade marked by a series of coal company bankruptcies and layoffs beginning in 2016. 

The state and its communities stand to reap sizable grants under a $3 billion Department of Commerce initiative to help “communities around the country not only rebuild but reimagine their economy for the future,” according to Commerce Secretary Gina Riamondo. Within that effort, the U.S. Economic Development Administration this summer launched a $300 million Coal Communities Commitment program to revitalize “hard-hit” coal and energy communities.

Some of the federal initiatives include a first-phase competitive grant deadline of Oct. 19. Winners could receive $200,000 to $500,000 for technical and coordinating efforts. Those winners may apply for larger grants — $25 million to $75 million — in March to begin putting their plans into action.

Both state and local economic development officials said they’re rushing to meet the Oct. 19 and other upcoming deadlines to qualify for larger grants. Some communities, including Campbell and Sweetwater counties, say they have proposals that have lingered for years that — as they are updated — should be prime contenders to qualify under the federal programs.

Plans to diversify Campbell County’s fossil-fuel-extraction-centric economy still hinge on coal and the industrial service sector that’s developed around mining, oil and gas for more than 50 years. But rather than being solely dependent on extraction, leaders plan to build upon the momentum of ongoing efforts to create a new “carbon economy” via carbon capture-sequestration-and-utilization technologies and coal-to-products manufacturing.

Campbell County leaders have envisioned a large industrial and manufacturing park on 250 acres located just east of the county’s sprawling Cam-Plex multi-event complex. Pronghorn Industrial Park would cater to emerging industries that local and state governments have been working to incubate for years through efforts such as the Integrated Test Center — home to the Carbon XPrize competition — and the Wyoming Innovation Center, which is now under construction.

“Whether you’re mining 300 million [tons of coal for power plants] or 50 million for different products and product streams, you’re still going to have the industry service jobs and some mining,” Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell said. “But what you’re going to end up having more of are those specialized manufacturing jobs.”

What’s needed to implement the carbon economy vision in Campbell County are large-acre sites where companies can easily connect to water, power and other services, Bell said.

The county will apply for $11.3 million in federal stimulus grants for the industrial park, and offer up a $2.8 million cash match, according to local officials. Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King said the city is eager to extend water, sewer, power and fiber optic infrastructure to the location.

Proponents say Pronghorn Industrial Park fits well with the community’s existing infrastructure and evolving industrial sector, as well as federal grant guidelines to become less carbon-intensive.

“The structural declines in the thermal coal market require Campbell County to quickly diversify its economic base, moving to a broader focus on technologies and industries that can add value to our significant carbon portfolio,” the county stated in its draft grant application for the proposed industrial park.

Energy Capital Economic Development has partnered with a public-private institute that advocates for projects to convert coal into products on another grant application. That application speaks to broader, region-wide efforts to qualify for the federal stimulus funds, Energy Capital’s Phil Christopherson said.

The Gillette College Foundation is submitting another application to create an “office of transformation” staffed with two contract positions. The city and county have already agreed to support the effort with office space and tech support, Foundation Executive Director Heidi Gross said.

The new office would “pull together all of these great studies that Campbell County has done in the last few years,” Gross said. “We did a Carbon Valley feasibility study. We did a higher-education study. We also did a healthcare study, and we’ve done all of these just within the last few years. And so the first thing this implementation manager will do is pull together all of these things.” 

Sweetwater County Economic Development Coalition will submit a grant application for its Sweetwater County Industrial Plan, a proposal to develop portions of 15,000 acres east of Rock Springs. The proposal is included within a larger framework now being developed by the Wyoming Energy Authority called the Wyoming Energy Transformation Regional Cluster.

Bendel, of the Energy Authority, said the regional cluster framework attempts to satisfy requirements of the federal coal communities stimulus programs. 

“They’re telling us that regions need to be very broad in scope,” Bendel said. “So the more counties we can consider, maybe even a couple of states,” the better chance that community-level grant applications will be successful. “They’re really wanting us to think about game changers — what’s going to be a transformational vision? What types of new systems can we build? How can we increase diversity on a very broad, high-level scale?”

The Sweetwater County Industrial Plan is less fossil-fuel-centric than the vision in Campbell County. It would cater to manufacturing — renewable energy components, equipment for agriculture, mining, construction and glass products, including solar panels — as well as commerce distribution, data centers and computer services, Sweetwater County Economic Development Coalition Development Specialist Kayla McDonald said.

“It would help us get that [property] shovel-ready and really start looking at some future expansion out there and what it would take for us to get that up and running,” McDonald said. “We’ve had a lot of interest recently” among potential businesses.

The original vision for developing the property, which is located near Baxter Road, came in 2015 at the request of Gov. Matt Mead. Mead wanted to see a massive industrial complex to convert coal, oil, natural gas and other minerals into various products. That vision dissipated under Gov. Mark Gordon’s administration, McDonald said.

Today’s revised plans for a more diverse business and industrial park play well to changing markets, McDonald said, while still taking advantage of the local infrastructure and talents built by trona, coal, oil and natural gas industries.

“We have the water. We have the land and, basically, we have the workforce,” McDonald said.

Sweetwater County also has a lot of empty buildings that are in good shape, McDonald said, such as the facility once occupied by Halliburton. Those idle sites are ready for new businesses to move in and begin operations, she said.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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