A key figure in the mythology of the American West is that of the rugged individualist, the impressively self-reliant person, rarely needing help from anyone, least of all the federal government. The self-reliant ethos is a powerful one, not just at the level of the individual but at the level of the city. Yet the reality is that most towns and cities in the American West are reliant to a remarkable degree on state and federal governments, as well as on a few large (often extractive) global industries: coal, oil, natural gas, etc.
What happens when demand for those resources drops? What happens when the state or federal government runs out of money? Wyoming is finding out.
In an op-ed last month in the Casper Star-Tribune, Nate Martin, the executive director of Better Wyoming, wrote: “Faced with COVID-19 and the collapse of Wyoming’s coal industry, Republican Gov. Mark Gordon said recently that the state might have to start abandoning small towns because there’s not enough money to maintain their sewers and streets.” Wyoming has no income tax and some of the lowest property and sales taxes in the country. Martin makes the case that, to help cover its projected two-year, $1.5 billion budget shortfall, the state should increase tax revenue — perhaps by instituting an income tax or raising its other taxes.
This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular cohost Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, discuss Martin’s op-ed and the situation in Wyoming...and, really, throughout the West. Abby and Chuck talk about why saying Wyoming has a revenue problem doesn’t go deep enough in diagnosing the underlying issues there. They talk about the ways in which the extractive economies of many Western states are mimicked in extractive development patterns. They also discuss how towns and cities in Wyoming can begin to build local economies strong enough to weather the hard times. (Hint: It starts not with minerals in the ground, but with the people.)
Then in the Downzone, Chuck recommends the book 1493, by Charles C. Mann, and talks about finally signing up for Netflix. And Abby recommends a show on Netflix that Chuck can now watch, The Queen’s Gambit.
Additional Show Notes
- “Martin: Wyoming needs to bite the bullet,” by Nate Martin
- "Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon Faces Massive Budget Hole As COVID-19 Cases Rise," by Peter O'Dowd
- “Just Print the Money” (Podcast)
- Abby Kinney (Twitter)
- Charles Marohn (Twitter)
- Gould Evans Studio for City Design
- Theme Music by Kemet the Phantom (Soundcloud)
- Additional content from Strong Towns on small towns and rural economies:
- “A Plan for Building Strong Rural Communities,” by Charles Marohn
- “Small Towns Are Dying. Can They Be Saved?” (Podcast)
- “We’re in the Endgame Now for Small Towns,” by Charles Marohn
- “What happens when an entire region of rural communities buys into the same bad approach to development?” by John Pattison
- “Local Leaders Are Reshaping America One Small Town at a Time,” by Quint Studer