Laramie could be the next western town to cash in on public lands recreation
On a Thursday evening last March, a crowd of eager residents packed into the gymnasium of the Lincoln Community Center in West Laramie to learn more about the Pilot Hill Project—a community-led effort to purchase 5,500 acres of rolling foothills and short-grass prairie east of town. Long desired by locals, many of whom grew to love the land when it was previously accessible with special permission from the owner, the property offers outstanding views and recreational opportunities, and would give the community the chance to permanently protect an important recharge zone for Laramie’s primary drinking water source, the Casper Aquifer. It also offers front-door access to 55,000 acres of public land in the Pole Mountain Unit of the Medicine Bow National Forest.
But with a price tag of $10.5 million, the property isn’t exactly cheap. And what’s more, organizers of the purchase effort note that, in addition to the purchase price, the community would need to raise an additional $4–4.5 million to pay for trails and restrooms, hire staff, and install fencing and signage.
That’s a big ask for Wyoming’s poorest county. And Laramie—with its potholed streets and buckling sidewalks—can hardly afford to keep its emergency services running, let alone come up with a sizeable contribution to help fund the purchase of property outside city limits.
“We as a city are struggling right now just to pay for basic road maintenance,” concedes Laramie Mayor Andi Summerville. “We are literally having discussions about what services we cannot provide anymore.”
Still, finding a way to pay for Pilot Hill could be important to Laramie’s economic future. All throughout the West, communities are reinventing themselves and their economies by investing in expanded recreational access on public lands through projects like Pilot Hill that draw visitors, and their checkbooks, to town. The purchase could bring real money to Laramie, especially if the community’s tax structure will allow it to capitalize on all that recreation can offer.
“It’s really difficult to see this project that could have enormous economic benefit and have absolutely no cash to be able to help bring the project to fruition,” admits Summerville.
But with the growing recognition in recent years of the outdoor recreation industry as an important driver of economic development, many think it’s an opportunity the community simply can’t afford to pass up.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, nationally, outdoor recreation generates almost $900 billion a year in consumer spending on everything from lift tickets, guides, and lodging to equipment, food, and clothing—that’s more than what Americans spend each year on household utilities and pharmaceuticals combined. The Colorado-based trade organization reports that in 2016, outdoor recreation supported 7.6 million jobs and contributed more than $125 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue. According to the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, which uses a more limited economic measure than that of OIA, outdoor recreation accounted over 2 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, or $412 billion, in 2016.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s twice the value of automobile sales in this country,” says Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman, Montana-based non-partisan think tank that’s focused on improving community-development and land-management decisions. “It’s bigger than mineral production of oil, gas, and coal combined.”
OIA reports that outdoor recreation in Wyoming is responsible for $5.6 billion in consumer spending annually, provides 50,000 direct jobs, and generates over $500 million each year in state and local taxes. That’s still far less than Wyoming’s extractive industries like coal and oil, but amid the recent downturn in the state’s energy economy, recreation has caught the attention of state leaders who have been scrambling to diversify Wyoming’s economy and break free of the boom and bust cycle that has plagued the state for the better part of the last century.
“We truly believe that this is a growth industry in Wyoming,” says Nephi Cole, a policy advisor for outgoing Wyoming Governor, Matt Mead.
With nearly half of the state’s total land area designated public land, and the lowest population density of any state in the lower 48, they might be on to something.
Hoping to benefit from a larger cut of the outdoor recreation economy, many in the Laramie community are excited that the Pilot Hill purchase would create new public land immediately adjacent to town.
Data suggest that when Americans recreate outside, they typically do so on public land. According to a recent report by the Center for Western Priorities, US public lands in eleven western states see more than 290 million visits each year—equivalent to almost one visit for every person living in the United States.
“There’s something about public lands that creates a lot of economic growth,” says Rasker.
According to research by Headwaters Economics, counties in eleven western states that claim nearly half of all the nation’s public lands have since the 1970s outperformed the rest of the country in several key economic measures. While it’s difficult to tease apart the specific source of economic growth attributable to public lands—whether from agriculture, resource extraction, or recreation and tourism—it’s telling that counties with more protected federal lands (locations where energy development and resource extraction are off limits) have seen significantly higher growth in employment, jobs, and personal income. Per capita income growth has also been slightly higher in those places.
According to Rasker, outdoor recreation on public lands contributes to the economic growth of western communities in two distinct ways. The first relates to tourism and the visitor recreation impact.
“People come, they spend money, they buy gear, they stay at hotels,” says Rasker. That’s the tourism component.
To be sure, western states with the most public land visits report the greatest consumer spending on outdoor recreation.
Another way outdoor recreation helps grow western economies is through amenity migration—that is, by attracting people to move to beautiful places with recreational opportunities that improve their quality of life. For instance, some research shows that the aging baby boomer generation is choosing to move to places with access to outdoor recreation, bringing a large demographic shift to western communities. Baby boomers—those born in the post-war period between 1946 and 1964—account for 80 percent of US personal wealth, and as they retire, they bring their substantial resources with them.
While baby boomers may not be spending all of their retirement, social security, and investment income on the latest outdoor gear, they do build homes and require healthcare, which stimulates other sectors of the economy.
Like baby boomers, businesses and entrepreneurs are also attracted to places where their workforce can enjoy an increased quality of life and recreate on public lands. Whereas historically employers would typically set up shop in places where they could find work or an educated labor force, namely urban centers, today’s digital economy allows people and businesses to work from just about anywhere they have an internet connection. And that means many are choosing to live and work in places where they have access to the outdoors.
“And it’s not just for the CEO of a company,” explains Rasker, “but also as a way to recruit talent. They say, ‘Come work for us. Don’t go to Boston or San Francisco—come work for us and you can go fly fishing after work.’”
Such is the case with Weatherby, Inc., a firearms manufacturer, which announced in January it would move its manufacturing headquarters from Paso Robles, California, to Sheridan, Wyoming. When explaining his company’s decision to relocate, Weatherby’s President and CEO, Adam Weatherby, cited Wyoming’s gun-friendly culture and “endless access” to the great outdoors as prime motivators for making the move.
“We wanted a place where we could retain a great workforce, and where our employees could live an outdoor lifestyle,” Weatherby told the Wyoming Business Council.
It’s that point that has entrepreneurs like John Pope excited about the Pilot Hill Project. Pope is the CEO of Blue Sky Group, a Laramie-based company that owns and operates a mix of technology and sustainability businesses that employ about 100 people in the community. He originally moved to Laramie in 1991 for graduate school. Following years of living other places, Pope returned to Laramie in 1998 to start the company that would ultimately become Blue Sky because of its location and easy access to trails for outdoor recreation.
“When I moved here in ’91, we used to use the Cactus Trail regularly,” recalls Pope, describing a now off-limits section of trail that lies just north of the Pilot Hill property. Although Cactus is not part of Pilot Hill purchase, it gives those familiar with the trail a taste for what’s possible if the project were to go through.
“I still remember the wow factor that everyone had, being able to start in downtown Laramie and directly connect to the beauty and open space of the Laramie Range,” he says. “The Pilot Hill purchase represents a sea change for the quality of life in the town of Laramie. And that wow factor is important when it comes to recruiting people to live here, and for companies to come here.”
Pope believes in the ability of the Pilot Hill land purchase to transform Laramie so much, in fact, that his company donated a couple months’ salary to hire an organizer for the Pilot Hill Project to mobilize partners and community members to make the purchase happen.
“We think the people that are trying to put this together are serious,” he says. “That’s partly why we’re supporting it. They needed someone to do the work to get things moving, to get the funding together to make this happen. So we tried to solve that.”
That someone was Melanie Arnett, a local database manager and avid mountain biker. Since she assumed the position in January, the number of volunteers working on the project has grown from around 40 to well over 100, and over 600 individuals and groups have signed a pledge to donate money to the purchase effort. In addition, several local business organizations, charitable foundations, federal and state agencies, and others, have joined the effort, donating time and resources with hopes of making the purchase a reality and remaking Laramie into a thriving outdoor recreation destination that can attract more people and businesses to the community.
If they’re successful, there are several examples of cities and towns throughout the West that give organizers hope that, by seizing the opportunity to better connect the City of Laramie to nearby public lands, the community can cash in and grow the local economy.
Take Fruita, Colorado. Twenty-five years ago, the sleepy farm town of 4,000 tucked along the banks of the Colorado River on Colorado’s Western Slope was heavily dependent on oil and gas extraction for revenue and was known more for its dinosaur fossils and apple orchards than its trails. Then in 1995, a group of locals opened a bike shop, worked with the BLM to build a world-class trail system on public land north of town, and started a bike festival. Fast forward to today, and Fruita is a bustling town of 13,000 and a mecca for recreationists of all types, including bikers, hikers, paddlers, and wildlife watchers. Visitors who make the pilgrimage to town can choose from several hotels and restaurants, but that’s just the start. A recent socio-economic study of the trail networks in Grand Valley, Colorado, of which Fruita is a part, found that the economic impact of trail users on the area’s annual Gross Regional Product—that is, the market value for all final goods and services produced in a region—is well over $14.5 million and the total labor income that results from visiting trail-user spending regularly exceeds $9 million. That translates into an estimated $2.25 million in state and local taxes each year to help pay for the city’s roads, schools, and emergency services.
The same goes for Boise, Idaho. Beginning in the late 1980s, a group known as the Boise Front Coalition began work to connect neighborhoods to nearby public lands via a community trail network. The Ridge to Rivers trail system now hosts nearly 200 miles of multiple-use trails that generate almost $5 million in tax revenue each year to the City of Boise, and an additional $2.5 million to Ada County, according to the Ridges to Rivers Partnership. Today Boise is the fastest-growing city in the US, thanks in part to its access to outdoor recreation.
And it doesn’t stop there. Three Forks, Montana; Duluth, Minnesota; Eagle, Colorado; Prineville, Oregon; even Bentonville, Arkansas—all have shown remarkable economic growth following community investment in outdoor recreation and trails access on public land.
Though Laramie is not likely to triple in population size, as is the case for Fruita, or to become the nation’s fastest growing city, like Boise, there are plenty of reasons to believe that expanded recreational opportunities and public lands access have the potential to transform Laramie into a popular outdoor destination where people and businesses want to visit, live, work, and play.
For one, the town’s location along I-80 means that potential recreational tourists are always passing through. Coupled with Wyoming’s business-friendly tax environment (the state has no income or corporate tax) and a new 100-gigabit statewide broadband network, Laramie is also well-situated to attract new businesses to town, and convince existing ones, to relocate.
And with efforts underway for a major enhancement of the existing trail infrastructure in the Pole Mountain unit of the Medicine Bow National Forest that would directly connect to Laramie via the Pilot Hill trails, the potential for Laramie becoming a much sought-after mountain-biking destination seems greater than ever.
Unlike Moab, Fruita, and many other western mountain-bike destinations that are too hot to ride in the summer months, Laramie is a high-elevation town that rarely exceeds 80 degrees and is free of rattle snakes, poison oak, and other hazards found elsewhere. Moreover, Laramie’s proximity to population centers like Denver and other cities and towns along the Front Range means that it can expect to attract visitors from neighbors to the south in search of fewer people and miles upon miles of flowy single track.
“We could have all of the Front Range coming up here to mountain bike,” Arnett told attendees at the March meeting. While that concerned some community members who don’t to compete with crowds at their favorite trailheads, it also represents an outstanding economic opportunity if Laramie can manage the growth and squeeze a few more dollars out of all those visitors.
Whether the community can come up with the $10.5 million needed to purchase the land remains to be seen, but recent developments make the acquisition more likely. Organizers of the Pilot Hill Project say they’ve raised nearly three-quarters of a million dollars so far in community pledges and donations alone. And in June, the Wyoming State Board of Land Commissioners gave approval to proceed with the detailed analysis of a land exchange in which private landowners in Albany and Laramie Counties could acquire stranded parcels of state-owned land within their landholdings at appraised value. The money the landowners pay for those isolated State parcels would then be pooled and used to purchase the Pilot Hill property for State ownership. But even if the entire $10.5 million value of Pilot Hill is net through such an exchange, the community would still need to come up with the $4.5 million to pay for infrastructure costs and a management endowment. To do that, project organizers say they are pursuing other funding options like grants and easements.
And yet, even if the purchase goes through, whether Laramie could actually realize a sizeable economic benefit depends, in large part, on the city’s tax structure. Though any increase in the number of visitors or residents in Laramie is sure to have a positive financial impact on the community, the magnitude of that impact is less certain.
“Municipalities in Wyoming are the most fiscally dependent on their state government of any city or town nationwide,” explains Laramie Mayor Andi Summerville. “We have the least fiscal independence, or fiscal authority, of anybody else in the country. Which means that we have no ability to raise our own revenue as a city government.”
Unlike communities across neighboring states like Colorado and Idaho, which allow municipalities to determine their own tax rates and to decide what goods and services to tax, Wyoming municipalities have only a couple of local tax options to choose from. That means Laramie could be flooded by mountain bikers and still not see enough revenue to cover things like street repair and basic city services.
If Laramie and other communities around Wyoming want to maximize the economic gains from outdoor recreation through projects like Pilot Hill, they’ll need the ability to generate more local tax revenue. But any change to the existing tax code requires legislative approval.
“We think [the legislature] should give municipalities more flexibility,” Summerville says. In the case of Laramie, that could mean taxing food, alcohol, and professional services—even groceries.
“If the city voters want another sales tax to capitalize on what’s actually going on here, that should be an option,” suggests Summerville. “So rather than limiting municipalities’ ability to generate new sources of revenue, the legislature should be working to develop solutions that enable communities like Laramie to really capitalize on projects like Pilot Hill. It could do amazing things for the community.”
By Kit Freedman
Kit Freedman is an associate research scientist for the Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming.