In the past nine months, the Wyoming Business Council has infused almost $513 million into the state’s economy, helping businesses and nonprofits weather the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March 2020, the U.S. Congress allocated the State of Wyoming $1.25 billion as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. During a Special Session in May, the Wyoming Legislature passed three bills to guide how that money was to be spent, initially earmarking $325 million for business and nonprofit relief through the COVID-19 Business Relief Program (BRP), which the Business Council administered.
“Thanks to Governor Gordon, the Wyoming Legislature, and our partners, we were able to place relief funding directly into the hands of businesses and nonprofits, keeping doors open and more folks employed,” said Business Council CEO Josh Dorrell. “Combining the relief funding with some of the country’s most business-friendly health orders allows Wyoming communities to start the year in a much better place; however, we realize we’re not out of the woods yet.”
The BRP consisted of five funds: Interruption, Relief, Mitigation, Agriculture, and Endurance. In total, almost $420 million was awarded through these funds.
Overall, through BRP and additional relief programs including Connect Wyoming, the Wyoming Meat Processing Expansion Grant Program, the Energy Rebound Program, and the Hospitality Loss Relief Program, $512.6 million was distributed statewide to eligible businesses and nonprofits. A summary breakdown of Business Council-administered programs is provided below.
In 2021, the Business Council plans to shift from recovery relief andcontinue its efforts with private businesses, industries, and communities to adapt, add value to Wyoming’s core industries, activate new sectors, and increase resiliency.
“We understand the demand for additional assistance and will continue to work with state and federal stakeholders on any possible COVID-19 related economic development and relief efforts,” Dorrell added. “We will also reach out to businesses across the state to understand their challenges and determine ways to help build resilience.”
COVID-19 Business Relief Program:
Through the Business Relief Program, more than $419.9 million was awarded to 8,576 applicants with a total of 39,149 full-time employees. More than 7,000 unique Wyoming businesses (6,664) and nonprofits (396) benefited.
The Legislature initially allocated $325 million for the program and Governor Gordon shifted additional unallocated CARES Act funding to accommodate the high demand for relief assistance as COVID-related challenges persisted. Under the BRP umbrella, five funds (Interruption, Relief, Mitigation, Agriculture, and Endurance) targeted financial assistance to the diverse needs of industries, large companies, small businesses, and select nonprofits.
While operating continuously since the start of the pandemic, Wyoming’s trona industry suffered a significant decrease in the demand for soda ash due to the global impacts of COVID-19.
“The resources Genesis Alkali received from the Mitigation Fund have helped offset unanticipated health and safety expenses to keep COVID-19 out of the workplace and allow the mine and the plants to continue operating,” said David M. Caplan, Director of Communications for Genesis Alkali.
The trona companies, as well as others in the mineral and energy industry, used the Mitigation Fund to reimburse costs of COVID-19 prevention measures including personal protective equipment, site entry screening, and heightened disinfection activities and materials.
Being able to offset some of these increased costs “is especially valuable at a time when the business is impacted in such a negative way,” said Todd Brichacek, Senior VP, Site Manager Green River for Solvay Chemicals.
For Chancey Williams Music LLC, the pandemic was devastating. Chancey Williams and the Younger Brothers Band normally play more than 100 dates per year but instead experienced a near-total work stoppage for its 10 full-time employees. The musician turned to the Interruption and Relief funds for assistance.
“It would be hard to overstate how proud I am to be from Wyoming,” Williams said. “I know how lucky I am. And I know, without a doubt, that the Wyoming response to this crisis is the primary reason my organization has fared so much better than many of our colleagues throughout the country.”
The Troopers Drum & Bugle Corps in Casper also had to completely cancel its 2020 season and temporarily close its bingo hall. The Troopers, founded in 1957, is the only competitive world-class drum and bugle corps in Wyoming. Closing was catastrophic to the organization, which lost its entire income for the year, and it sought assistance from the Endurance Fund.
“The funding from the Wyoming Business Council has indeed come from heaven,” said Susan B. Masterson, Troopers Development Director. “We were dying of thirst. Receiving funding was like finding a deep, cool lake in the middle of a desert. We can now not only pay for upcoming bills that we did not have the funds for, but we can find a path forward out of this nightmare.”
Oversight and Other Security Measures:
To confirm eligibility, the BRP application process included robust, multi-layered reviews and due diligence that covered screening of each applicant against more than a dozen databases in coordination with multiple state agencies. The Business Council also conducted debarment checks, manual reviews, and vendor checks with the State Auditor’s Office before any payments were dispersed.
Through this process, the Business Council:
- Performed synthetic fraud checks on all applications via Sentilink, which provided this service pro bono.
- Created the BRP Tip Form to collect anonymous concerns from the public which garnered more than 200 tips, many of which were included in the audit pool.
- Contracted with independent auditing firm McGee Hearne & Paiz, LLP (MHP) of Cheyenne to audit 335 entities based on sampling criteria established by MHP; Final audit results are pending.
Additional Relief Measures – Connect Wyoming:
Governor Gordon and state legislators created Connect Wyoming, an initiative to provide internet access in areas where there is no or little broadband so Wyomingites can access telehealth, and remote learning or work situations more seamlessly.
The Business Council awarded $56.4 million for 33 contracts/projects to the following internet service providers:
- Vistabeam Internet
- AllWest Communications
- SilverStar Communications
- Mountain West
- Visionary Broadband
- Wind River Internet
A committee of Business Council staff and board members, Broadband Advisory Council members, and Governor’s Office staff recommended applications that did not compete with existing providers who offer service speeds of at least 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload (25/3), as defined by Wyoming statute. The Business Council received 81 applications from 14 providers requesting $184.8 million.
These projects will impact 15 counties and 54 communities by providing broadband to areas of Wyoming that had either no broadband access or access at speeds less than 25/3. To date, 12,817 households and 411 Wyoming businesses now have service with a minimum of three times the federal standard. One-third of the new services are fiber connectivity, providing new opportunities to many remote areas that couldn’t imagine it before this program.
Visionary Broadband put some of the Connect Wyoming funds they received to work by employing out-of-work oilfield industry workers as well as some supply companies that had a downturn in 2020.
“This has been a cool side note to bringing improved broadband to the state,” shared Stacie McDonald, Visionary’s Director of Public Relations. “We are hopeful that with all of the hard stuff Wyoming has been facing through COVID and economically, our citizens can embrace the Wyomingness of wanting to make something happen, quick ‘heads-together’ partnership of our groups, providers bailing in to apply and move quickly to deploy, and then this extra cool benefit of this work becoming a jobs creator for our neighbors in the energy industry. I’ve been saying, ‘This is the most Wyoming thing ever!’”
Meat Processing Expansion Grant Program:
Governor Gordon created the Meat Processing Expansion Grant Program to provide support for Wyoming meat processing facilities and Wyoming citizens impacted by supply chain disruptions and regional shutdowns of processing facilities due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
Through the program, $4.8 million was awarded to 29 applicants to reimburse costs associated with meat processing and associated infrastructure expansion. These funds will help ensure local meat processing and availability throughout the state.
The Business Council supported the administration of the program in collaboration with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture and the Governor’s Office.
“As COVID hit our area, we were able to maintain supply from local ranchers and (Wyoming Legacy Meats) took on a front line approach to providing meat to this area,” said Frank Schmidt, owner of the USDA-certified plant in Cody. “People traveled up to 100 miles to our plant as (meat) was scarce. We were at a point of exhausting our resources when the grant became available and we were able to ensure our suppliers of pending payment and continue to meet demands.
“The grant also allows us to purchase equipment that will enhance our ability to process. This will mean value added for local ranchers to market their livestock,” Schmidt added. “ I believe the grant came at the right time to secure regional processing and gave the producers a much-needed boost during a time of uncertainty. Hats off to the program and all who made it happen.”
Energy Rebound Program:
The Business Council administered the Energy Rebound Program in collaboration with the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and other agencies to provide business relief targeted toward drilled but uncompleted oil and gas wells (DUCs), wells that were unable to be re-completed, and plugging and abandonment (P&A) projects which could not be finished due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program funded 293 oil and gas projects totaling $30 million from 67 eligible companies. According to company estimates, these projects will provide more than 5,000 jobs in Wyoming and will produce over $150 million in oil and natural gas in the next year.
Companies were limited to a cap of $500,000 per project. In addition to drilled but uncompleted wells, each company could receive funding for up to five recompletions or workovers, and five plugging and abandonment (P&A) of wells that are no longer producing. Operators were able to apply to be reimbursed for work done between the date of approval and Dec. 30, 2020.
“Through this much-needed funding, our company was able to offer work to 16 individuals who live in the state of Wyoming,” said Gabe D’Arthenay, Operations Manager for Southwestern Production Corp. “This project provided not just additional employment opportunities in a time of need but also a much needed boost to the Wyoming economy through the increased oil production that will be realized from this work.”
Southwestern Production Corp estimates an additional 97,500 billion barrels (bls) of oil will be produced over the next year due to the conversion of a well to an injection well inside their Enhanced Oil Recovery Project in Converse County. That equates to $4.875 million in gross revenue for the company at $50/bbl.
“This additional production will provide increased revenue to the State of Wyoming as well as continuing employment opportunities due to the anticipated continued success of this project,” D’Arthenay added.
Hospitality Loss Relief Program:
In December, Governor Gordon created the Hospitality Loss Relief Program to provide pandemic relief for hospitality businesses and nonprofits whose operations were interrupted by the reduced hours provisions in recent health orders. Any bar, tavern, restaurant, or hotel deriving its primary income between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. from the on-premises sale and consumption of malt beverages, wine, and/or liquor was eligible for up to $50,000 in assistance.
Through the program, 144 businesses and nonprofits were awarded a total of $1.5 million in funding.
For one small business in Diamondville, these relief dollars made a huge difference. “I’ve been working with my dad, who owns a small business in Nevada, to try to find funding and support similar to what is available in Wyoming,” said Our Place 777 owner Phillip Viviano. “There’s really nothing that compares to what Wyoming has done for small businesses to help us during this difficult time. It is truly incredible.”
The Business Council administered the program with support from the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association, the Wyoming State Liquor Association, and the Wyoming Department of Revenue Liquor Division.