GILLETTE, Wyo. — Lawmakers will soon decide the fate of several bills intended to stimulate downtown revitalizations and economic growth in Wyoming.
“Economic development is a long game,” Rep. Trey Sherwood (D-Laramie) said. “It’s a lot of baby steps to get to that bigger impact.” Sherwood, who runs Laramie Main Street Alliance, will bring a pair of complementary bills to incentivize improving neglected or abandoned commercial buildings.
Housing, however, is the biggest hindrance to economic development in the state, according to Sherwood. “How are you going to grow a business or recruit a business if the workforce doesn’t have a place to live?” she said.
Two legislative committees made the topic a priority during the interim, but that only got lawmakers so far — mostly they advanced proposals to tamp down rising residential property taxes. Other lawmakers, meanwhile, have indicated interest in a film production rebate program and a new type of liquor license as ways of supporting Wyoming’s economic development during the upcoming 40-day general session.
Every downtown has at least one abandoned or neglected building, Sherwood said. Problem properties can be eyesores, but to Sherwood they’re also untapped revenue sources.
To help communities cash in, one of Sherwood’s two bills would create a methodology for local governing bodies to declare qualifying property as abandoned or a nuisance. From there, a new property owner could be eligible for tax credits for rehabilitating the building or removing dangerous materials, such as asbestos.
“It’s not eminent domain, it’s not ‘you lose your building,’” Sherwood said. “We’re just providing an opportunity for buildings that need a little love to get some attention.”
The second bill would provide similar incentives for commercial properties that are purchased by tax deed. The idea being, Sherwood said, if a community can get a building back on the property tax roll, it can also potentially provide housing or space for a tax-revenue-producing business.
At press time, Sherwood was finalizing details for both bills with feedback from stakeholders but expected to have bi-partisan sponsorship. Sen. Dan Furphy (R-Laramie), who brought a similar bill in 2019, helped craft the legislation, Sherwood said.
After evaluating how Wyoming’s liquor license laws and fees may stifle new business, the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee voted to sponsor three related bills during the interim session.
At least five municipalities have maxed out their bar and grill liquor licenses, according to Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne). That includes Cody, Jackson, Laramie, Sheridan and Cheyenne, where Zwonitzer said 11 businesses competed for one license earlier in 2022. Limits are currently based on a population formula but Senate File 13 – Bar and grill liquor license amendments would loosen that restriction over time starting in July. Ultimately, population formulas would sunset altogether in 2033. The bill would give municipalities more flexibility without making any changes to package liquor, according to Zwonitzer.
“That was kind of where we drew a little bit of a line,” Zwonitzer said. “Because it’s one thing if somebody wants to drink during dinner or lunch. It’s another if they’re buying a six pack or they’re binge drinking in the bars.”
Another bill would create a new kind of liquor license. Senate File 12 – Tavern and entertainment liquor license would enable emerging businesses that want to serve alcohol but are neither restaurants or bars, such as axe throwing or golf simulation venues. Under current regulations, a restaurant can qualify for a bar and grill liquor license if no less than 60% of its revenue comes from food service instead of alcohol sales. Similarly, the tavern and entertainment permit would require the establishment to earn at least 60% of its revenue from entertainment, food services or a combination of the two.
The committee heard varied testimony in the interim, Zwonitzer said, with bill proponents blaming current statutes for stifling business and economic diversification, including Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins. Health care providers, law enforcement and the Wyoming State Liquor Association, on the other hand, shared public safety concerns with the committee.
“Personally, I get concerned when we start saying we can’t have economic development without alcohol,” Zwonitzer said. “I don’t think that’s as strong a correlation as everybody says it is.”
A third bill would make changes to how retail liquor license fees are assessed.
Western movies and television, like the hit show “Yellowstone,” are often set in Wyoming, but too few of those projects are shot in the state, according to proponents of a film incentive bill.
“To say [to production companies] ‘we have lower taxes’ just does not cut the mustard,” according to outgoing Rep. Chad Banks (D-Rock Springs), who manages the Urban Renewal Agency with Rock Springs Main Street.
Without a direct financial incentive, Wyoming can’t compete with other states like Montana, Utah and New Mexico, Banks said.
Despite several years of industry pressure, lawmakers have not budged on the issue. Previous efforts have been thwarted by constitutionality concerns, though similar incentives in neighboring states have avoided legal challenges, according to a recent memo from the Legislative Service Office.
Now, the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee has resurrected a bill from 2022, giving lawmakers another chance to debate creating a rebate-like program. As drafted by the committee, the bill would use lodging tax dollars to fund the program with $3 million every two years. Qualifying productions would be reimbursed up to 30% of their expenses. At press time, the bill had yet to be posted.
Hollywood’s reputation as left leaning hasn’t helped previous iterations of the bill in conservative Wyoming, Banks said. Plus, the benefits of the program may not be obvious to everyone, he said. When “Starship Troopers” filmed at Hell’s Half Acre outside of Casper, for example, Banks said local hotels, catering and construction companies were the benefactors.
“The most successful economic development is with businesses and folks that have already chosen to make Wyoming their home,” Banks said.
The 2023 general session begins on Jan. 10.