Mountain West states like Montana, Colorado and Utah are seeing unprecedented population growth right now. In fact, Idaho is the fastest growing state in the nation. But that’s not the case in Wyoming where the population is shrinking.
Elsa Froelicher grew up in Cheyenne.
“I think Wyoming has a very small-town feel, which I adore, I love it,” said Froelicher.
But she wants to see more of the world. So, when she graduates from the University of Wyoming this May, she’ll be going to grad school — somewhere else.
“It’s between University of Puget Sound, which is in Tacoma, Washington, and the University of New Mexico which is Albuquerque,” said Froelicher.
An estimated 60 percent of young people like Froelicher take their degree and leave the state. Brandon Checci is another student who plans on checking out. He’s about to finish his Master’s in accounting and will move to Omaha, Nebraska. It will be the biggest city he’s ever lived in.
“I think the mystery of it all is actually what I’m more interested in,” said Checci.
That, and there’s a job waiting for him with Union Pacific, the second-largest railroad system in the country. Checci got the position through a college job fair. He said the benefits got his attention first, but it was the amenities in Omaha that sealed the deal.
“They have a lot more stuff that just goes on,” said Checci. “They have a theatre in downtown Omaha, and I think they have a world-famous zoo and aquarium.”
Still, kids itching to leave their hometowns isn’t unique to Wyoming - especially in other rural states. So what else is going on?
Samuel Western is a Wyoming author and cultural critic. He said Wyoming’s problem has everything to do with its resource economy and the boom and bust cycle.
“Traditionally, Wyoming has been contracyclical. That means that when commodity prices are high people come in, and when they are low, they leave,” said Western.
But that’s not unique to Wyoming, either. Other states have faced that reality. He said what is unique to Wyoming is how it’s dealt with that reality.
“We’ve just kicked the can down the road,” said Western.
On the other hand, he said states with similar economies have realized that people and their ideas are better than natural resources at bringing in wealth. And they’ve diversified. Wyoming he said is just starting to get that.
Governor Matt Mead recently introduced an initiative mandating economic diversity.
“The fact that we are talking about it, that it’s in print, that means we have to have people come into the state right now in order to make it work, is a fairly novel concept,” said Western.
So how do you get people to come back? One way is the state program - Wyoming Grown. Hayley McKee helped launch the program.
“We knew we needed to look at folks who were familiar with Wyoming and familiar with the Rocky Mountain region, love the outdoors,” said McKee.
One of their strategies in luring young Wyomingites back is flattery. A friend or family member who still lives in the state nominates someone who’s left. That person then gets a letter from the governor asking them to come home. McKee says she thinks that’s a powerful tool.
“‘Governor Mead wants me to come back from Wyoming,’ and it makes them feel special,” said McKee.
Even if they don’t come back straight away, McKee counts on them coming home eventually. That’s something Froelicher is already planning.
“I would love to come back to Wyoming ultimately and raise my family here and spend the rest of my life here, for sure,” said Froelicher.
Again, college grads coming back to their rural states or small hometowns to start a family isn’t specific to Wyoming either, and to get people like Brandon Checci to come back, the cowboy state will have to do more.
“I think we would have to have much more growth, or at least a lot more diversified economy,” said Checci.
And that’s what the state is working on right now.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.