The flashing lights could be seen from a distance. There was no doubt they signaled trouble. Their appearance had been preceded by warnings that steadily grew in volume from reliable sources. The hazard lights were only the latest proof that the rumors were true and there were rough conditions ahead.
And yet some still raced on at top speed, neither changing direction or intention. A minority had said change was not necessary to avoid disaster, and these drivers hoped the warning lights would be extinguished by the time they arrived. As we draw nearer to the turning point marked by the flashing lights, it’s time to reconsider our plans for Wyoming’s future.
A PacifiCorp report that recommends shutting down two units at the Jim Bridger Plant units in the next few years is only the latest warning sign that we can’t continue with business as usual. It won’t be the last, but it’s unclear how many more are needed before leaders will get serious about a diversified future. Financial forecasts have leveled off, businesses are closing, and people are seeking jobs beyond Wyoming’s borders — places where opportunities are expanding, not contracting.
Despite years of warnings, we’re behind on our preparations. That needs to change now. It’s probably too late to avoid painful consequences of our procrastination, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to stick our heads in the status quo sands. We need to demand honesty from stakeholders, set realistic goals, and take concrete steps to put ourselves in a better position.
• First we want business leaders and politicians to be more active. Too many leaders are hedging their bets and waiting for others to start sweeping changes. This leaves their followers with less time to react and mobilize. Consider what happened when officers on the Titanic first downplayed the contact with the iceberg. Time was wasted that could have been spent getting people into lifeboats.
With a proposed unit closure as soon as 2022, there’s not much time to act. PacifiCorp should host public meetings to outline its plans. As soon as decisions are made, they should be conveyed to the communities that will be impacted. The same should go for other companies contemplating similar changes, closures and layoffs. Don’t tease people with possibilities that aren’t being seriously considered. Make it clear what they can expect so they won’t be caught off guard later.
It’s understandable that corporations want to make money. PacifiCorp said the unit closures at Jim Bridger would save customers about $248 million over 20 years, and it’s hard to imagine it not embracing those financial and public relation windfalls. At the same time, we want the workers and their families to receive consideration. If companies can’t support these hardworking individuals with continued employment, they should provide the training and education to help them find well-paying work elsewhere. After all the hours and sacrifices they’ve contributed, these highly-skilled and technically-proficient crews should be rewarded with something more than a final paycheck.
When it comes to elected leaders, we deserve more than the same sound bites. We’re tired of lawmakers substituting decisive action with interim studies that lead to results that are ignored when the Legislature is back in session. We can’t regain the squandered years and dollars, but we can make it clear that those who wish to continue those tactics won’t retain their positions.
Check the condition of the horses they’re backing. Some put their money on the same thoroughbred and ignore that it’s getting rundown and is on its last legs. A horse won’t win just because you keep betting on it. To expect otherwise is the flawed logic of a gambling addict.
The Constitution doesn’t say Wyoming will only provide essential services like education and law enforcement when oil prices are booming. Alternative funding sources will need to be tapped, and sacred cow invited to the barbecue. Solutions won’t be found overnight, and missteps are inevitable, but we’d prefer risk takers over those who are too afraid to move.
• There are some issues that are too important to be trusted to the government alone. Considering the track record with economic development, outside assistance is needed. As doors close, an independent group should work to welcome and create new opportunities.
Start small. Have a core group define goals and ways to measure success. There are many tasks to consider. Do we want to focus on finding jobs for left-behind workers? Want to promote tourism? Are we trying to keep more young adults in Wyoming? Shall we focus on enlisting new industries? Can we re-purpose and reopen closed plants?
Carefully add members as roles and goals are defined. Be conscious of conflicts of interest. There have been too many committees where members were more focused on protecting personal empires than the public good. Hire experts and follow their advice. Look for partnerships, like working with local school districts and Western Wyoming Community College to educate and equip the people for the future we’re building.
Put the brainstormers to work. Collect information and give it to the people who will use it. Accentuate what we have, and if people want something we don’t have, see if we can build it. Keep an eye on trends, and don’t be afraid to dream big.
• Modernization comes with a cost. As we welcome the return of Big Boy No. 4014 and Living Legend No. 844 and remember the anniversary of the transcontinental railroad, remember why steam engines disappeared. They were replaced with more efficient diesel trains, and many workers and communities were left behind.
Ghost towns stand as the crumbling epitaphs of communities that failed to plan and prepare for changes. Today, however, we’re less interested in writing the obituary of coal than drafting the opening chapters of Wyoming’s new success stories. The state doesn’t have to have its fortunes tied to the whims of gas and oil markets. It is scary to face the unknown, but the only way to move toward something new is to leave the past behind.