When it comes to fighting for what it believes is in the best interest of the local economy, the Campbell County Commissioners refuse to give up on turning the Pronghorn Industrial Park from talk to reality.
After three rejections, Campbell County is preparing to make a fourth run at getting the financing for the proposed project east of town to lure large industrial companies to compensate for the loss of energy jobs locally. The grant officials continue to pursue is from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Agency (EDA), which last summer launched a $300 million Coal Communities Commitment program to assists hard-hit coal and energy communities. The program was funded as part of the American Rescue Plan.
Campbell County, the coal capital of the nation, is struggling to get its hands on a small piece of that assistance.
After striking out again in October, officials now have until Feb. 1 to have the extensive grant application submitted. Commissioners will likely vote on the application at their second meeting of January.
The federal grant would kickstart the proposed 247-acre project near Cam-Plex designed to house eight shovel-ready lots of 10-25 acres each, two of which commissioners say can be filled immediately.
“We have to lower the ask and find other ways or partners to complete the funding,” Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell said immediately after learning of the most recent denial last October. “What’s really not an option is phasing the project because the infrastructure can’t really go in just phases.”
Commissioner Bell said one of the many problems with phasing is that some of the infrastructure will likely never be completed. Bell added that the EDA has recommended the county reapply for less than half its most recent ask, just $5 million of the estimated $14-million project. Like before, the county would have to provide a 20 percent match, which in this case would be $1 million.
With a significantly smaller grant request, county officials must work harder to find the rest of the funding for the industrial park plans.
“We will have to go after other money sources to help with some of it, like water. The rest of it, we’ll probably have to go to sources like the Wyoming Business Council for help,” the commissioner said. “We can get there with a $6 million start – barely, but we can get there.”
Campbell County acquired the land on the east side of Cam-Plex in 2014. A portion of that is now the Gillette College rodeo facility, but most of the open land was to be the future home of an industrial park.
The county will invest in just the infrastructure while the committed beneficiaries would be responsible for their own construction work. Eight locations are anticipated at the site, and commissioners have said there has been plenty of interest in the location.
Campbell County’s fossil fuel extraction economy still relies on coal and the industries developed to support oil, gas and mining over nearly six decades. Commissioner Bell said rather than the county remaining solely dependent on extraction, the Pronghorn Industrial Park will boost efforts to create a new carbon economy from coal-to-products manufacturing, and carbon capture and sequestration technology.
“We have to be ready for the carbon needs because it’s coming whether we are ready or not,” Bell said. “We can be ready for it or watch it go somewhere else. We’ve seen that before.”
The Pronghorn Industrial Park is also expected to provide a future location for successes from the new Wyoming Innovation Center, which provides research space and technology to assist in the scaling-up of technologies that use coal to produce new products, Bell explained.
There has been little pushback locally about the Pronghorn Industrial Park. Only Republican Senator Troy McKeown (District 24) has voiced concerns with the project.
“It is my belief that the government does not belong in economic development, let alone property development,” McKeown said. He said if there was a need for such large facilities, such locations would already exist in Campbell County.
Campbell County’s pursuit of industrial assistance
In 2020, the county first applied for a $2.6 million slice of CARES Act money to make the Pronghorn Industrial Park a reality. The initial attempt was shot down that summer because the Campbell County didn’t tie the massive project to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A few months later in December of 2020, local officials pursued two financial assistance programs – a $3 million grant from the EDA and another $390,090 via the Wyoming Business Council. The attempt was rejected because the county did not show there was an immediate need for such a project with no committed beneficiaries.
Two months ago in late October, the county’s application for an $11.3 million grant from the EDA’s Coal Communities Commitment was rejected. The dollar amount was too high, the county was told.
“Campbell County is as coal-reliant as far as numbers of jobs and tonnage of coal as any place in the country,” Commissioner Bell reiterated in November. “This grant is aimed at communities like ours.”