Wyoming Innovation Center Advances with Pledges from County, City

The Campbell County Board of Commissioners granted a letter Tuesday pledging $176,000 from the county’s 2021 budget to Energy Capital Economic Development (ECED) for equipment costs at their coal innovation project center.

The commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the letter during their regularly scheduled meeting Jan.19, enabling ECED to secure around $3 million for the Wyoming Innovation Center (WyIC) using grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA) and the Wyoming Business Council (WBC).

The grants will enable construction for the WyIC to begin and fulfill equipment needs further down the road.

It’s a solid step toward the development of WyIC, formerly called the Advanced Carbon Products Innovation Center (ACPIC), which was devised several years ago by ECED and the University of Wyoming (UW) with the idea of luring prospective companies looking to nurture and explore economic development projects to Campbell County.

Several such companies, seeking a suitable location to develop coal-to-product ideas, visited Gillette between 2014 and 2016 but moved on and established their operations elsewhere because there was no such facility at that time, according to a January letter sent to the commissioners by Phil Christopherson, ECED chief executive officer.

With that in mind, ECED worked in tangent with the UW School of Energy Resources to plan and develop a carbon product innovation facility, which came to fruition after funding for the project was secured through the WBC and the EDA.

With a physical facility now within arm’s reach, ECED is one step closer to being able to offer something real to businesses scouting Campbell County as a potential location for coal experimentation projects.

Thus far, two Wyoming rural development projects have committed to joining the WyIC, and three projects have been promised by the UW School of Energy Resources, Christopherson said.

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“We’re fairly confident that by the time we open our doors we may be full,” Christopherson said during the Jan. 19 meeting. “That’s good news because the more we can find to do with coal, the better opportunity we have for our coal mines to keep them operational.”

Campbell County Commissioner Del Shelstad said that the commissioners have been committed to the project since its inception but expressed concern that if the board doesn’t fully commit to the project like it has in years past, it could severely hamper the WyIC’s progress.

“I don’t think any of us want that,” Shelstad said. “This is potentially something that we’re doing to further the use of coal outside of thermal (energy). We all know we need to do that.”

Shelstad mentioned that, in previous years, the commission had jumped on board with the project, adding that right now it wouldn’t make sense not to support it given the growing need to diversify the economy.

“We need options for coal that are outside of thermal energy,” Shelstad said.

The EDA grant gives WyIC $1.5 million dollars to cover project costs and equipment needs, providing the WBC could match the funding.

The WBC did so, excluding the portion needed to fund equipment for the WyIC, which WBC Business Ready Community grants are not allowed to fund, according to a January letter sent to the board of commissioners by Christopherson.

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In 2019, both the City of Gillette and the commission committed to providing the rest of the funds needed for the WyIC to fund their equipment, which was a combined total of $352,000.

At the time, only the city set aside their portion, $176,000, with the county requesting that EDEC come back and ask again when the WyIC was ready to move on equipment purchases.

Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell advised the money wasn’t in the budget for the current fiscal year, but it could be allocated under the next fiscal year which begins in July 2021.

Jim Ford, who serves on the ECED Board of Directors, said that the money didn’t need to be allocated right away, and if it was given in July 2021, the WyIC would be able to stay on schedule.

The funding provided by the county and the city would enable the WyIC to purchase equipment that would be used to receive feed stocks, crush coal down to manageable sizes, and sort and package coal for delivery to individual tenants who have set up shop in the WyIC test bays.

Christopherson expressed his appreciation to the board of commissioners and the Gillette City Council for jumping on and committing to the project as a great path moving forward for Campbell County.

Without the support of the board of commissioners and the city council, the project would be nothing and ECED would be left with nothing to do but hope someone generous would come along and help, Christopherson said.

“But this is a strong positive step forward in saying that we want to control our future,” he said to the board. “Your leadership and the city’s leadership has been critical to the success of this project.”