County ready for Pronghorn Industrial Park, McKeown not so much

The county hopes the third time is a charm to get funding for Pronghorn Industrial Park to draw in some big businesses and help offset hit from the fossil fuel industry.

With the steady decline in fossil fuel in Wyoming, Campbell County more specifically, local leaders know they must prepare for the future before it’s too late.

That’s forced local leaders to be more aggressive in planning since the guidance from the state has been dismal. For one project that’s been on the drawing board for years and handcuffed in the past, now might be the time to make it a reality.

The county has struck out twice in getting grant funding for the development of the Pronghorn Industrial Park east of the Camp-Plex. County officials hope the third time is a charm as in coming weeks they will apply for some of the American Rescue Plan money to help fund the estimated $12 million project.

There is clearly money available within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Its Economic Development Agency was authorized to spend more than $300 million of the multi-billion-dollar American Rescue Plan to support coal communities suffering or recovering from the pandemic and its lingering effects.

The intention is to help local government open more opportunities and jobs by expanding a new industry sector. That’s where Senator Troy McKeown’s (R-Gillette) concern comes in. He is not against seeking grant money that will better the county, but he thinks real estate is a business local government should not venture into.

Build it and they will come?

“It is my belief that the government does not belong in economic development, let alone property development,” McKeown said. “Currently there are 86 commercial properties for sale: 52 can be used for industrial or like-industrial, so if we build a business park, we are competing with our own constituents – we’re competing with our own tax base.”

McKeown referenced most of his points and comments from an article that ran in the Gillette News Record. He said that article indicated local leaders want to band together and build together.

“To start at the state level getting the cities together and run a coordinated effort for the economy – that’s a state-run economy,” McKeown said. “What’s the definition of a state-run economy? Socialism.”

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McKeown said there is a reason why the area has no huge industrial sites available.

“If someone hasn’t already built it here yet, maybe there is a reason for that? Maybe it’s because the need isn’t here right now,” he said.

Commissioner Rusty Bell said there is interest and officials have met with some developers about the site.

“Are there any shovel-ready 20-40-acre sites out there that you know of that are ready to go? The answer I continually get is no,” Bell said.

McKeown is firm that going after funds just for the sake of doing it is wasted money and taking money from others that need it for more pressing issues.

“We can’t even get the funds that are available now to fix roads, McKeown said.

Bell also explained some of the grants can’t be applied for by private companies; some must go through a government entity or a nonprofit.

“My question to you is, do you not want us to go after any of these (grants) and just settle for we get what we get?” Bell asked the senator.

Commissioner DG Reardon said there would be no competing with the existing industrial facilities. The facilities McKeown is referencing are nothing like what’s being discussed for Pronghorn Industrial Park, it would be like comparing a raisin to the moon.

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“We are not competing against local businesses, [what] we are talking about is 10-20 acres sites that don’t exist,” he said. “We would not build, we would just provide the site and sell it. We would not be in the ownership of being a landlord. All we are doing is getting large businesses to come to here that need industrial site space, instead of small 1, 2 and 5-acres sites.”

McKeown was firm that dealing real estate, is dealing real estate, no matter how you look at it.

“This is appalling. Just to get $12 million to build something to compete with private industry,” he said. “It’s not the government’s job to own property. I already think the county owns way too much as it is. I remember a meeting where I heard the comment that ‘we don’t know what all we own, we have to audit it’,” McKeown explained. “During my educational process, I listened to a lawyer who said, ‘these are pennies from heaven’. And that’s the mindset we have. They are not pennies from heaven, they are dollars from taxpayers in Wyoming that the federal government takes and decides how they are going to give it back. We are like crack addicts when it comes to federal funding.”

McKeown didn’t stop there.

“We got elected to take care of roads, fire departments, sheriff departments, city police.”

When mines are gone, what’s left?

For Reardon, it comes down to being able to attract large industrial business to Gillette. The kind of business that could offset the closure of a mine and refine or manufacture products from our fossil fuels or in other areas.

“You don’t want to give [businesses] money and pay their way, but you definitely need to give them the opportunity or something to attract them to the region because we are competing against the United States, we’re competing against every other state and every other community,” he said. “Some of them get quite a few incentives. We don’t give any incentives, but if we can provide an industrial-ready park where there are other like-minded businesses, pretty soon you can have a pretty nice park.”

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Commission Chairman Bob Maul said the first thing the commissioners and economic development do when there is interest in Gillette is to send the prospect to a realtor. However, when a company is looking for a 40-60-square-foot-facility, there is just not an option.  And no company is going to start from bare ground and spend five years getting it up and running.

Reardon stressed it is important right now to Campbell County ready for change because it’s coming whether someone wants to admit it or not. Bringing large industry here is a game-changer.

“We are talking big businesses that are going to help offset the shutdown of coal mines. McKeown says don’t take government grants to do this. My perspective is: the grants are out there and they are going to be used by somebody,” Reardon said. “We can either apply for those grants and try to get those businesses here which will build up our base, or we can ignore them and hope people will come if we don’t help them. Slowly but surely the mines are going to be running to the end of their lives, which is in the near forecast – near being within 10 years. Pretty soon, we don’t have any businesses attracting people to Campbell County and people continue to move out of here. You either play the game and get the money, or you don’t and you slowly but surely phase out.”