While the COVID-19 pandemic knows no boundaries, life in Wyoming still looks and feels quite familiar compared to much of the country, where millions have been holed up in high rises.
"We never had an explicit name for it like we do now, but most Wyomingites will tell you that social distancing is one thing they have always appreciated about life in Wyoming,” said Wendy Lopez, business recruitment manager for the Wyoming Business Council. “We’ve got plenty of wide-open spaces here.”
Spectacular views, boundless recreational opportunities, low population and room to grow have always been important features Lopez highlights when recruiting businesses to the state. And, while COVID-19 has brought about many changes for everyone across the country, it has also brought awareness to just how appealing those wide-open spaces can be to people and businesses.
Companies and employees are realizing, and proving, that they can work and hire from anywhere. So, if employees can answer emails on a ski lift or show up for meetings from a fishing boat, many experts are predicting a move away from big-city crowds and grueling commutes.
And, there's still potential for a far larger work-from-home revolution. About half of American workers have jobs that can be done remotely, at least in part, Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, told the Chicago Tribune.
It’s a trend Lopez and business recruiters across Wyoming see and are preparing to leverage; a potential bright spot in a dark situation.
Despite the pandemic hitting a big pause button for many aspects of everyday life, Wyoming never truly shut down. In Wyoming, the relocation of new firms and the expansion of several existing businesses provides a clear-cut example of the state's advantages for workers and companies alike.
TBC Mfg. Inc. is a tool and die company that supplies tooling to major manufacturers around the country and internationally. The company supplies a variety of industries including HVAC, Automotive, Aerospace and Furniture, with plans to expand services to other industries.
The company intends to add 10 to 15 jobs right away, with more to come as it continues to grow.
The three-generation family business worked with Cheyenne LEADS to bring its headquarters and operations from Colorado to Wyoming.
“As owners, we appreciate the independent, friendly, family-oriented culture we’ve experienced in Cheyenne, for both ourselves and for future generations of our family and our employees,” owners Jeff and Karri Sieber said in a news release.
The company announced its intent to move to Wyoming in February, just before the coronavirus-related shutdowns. Still, the groundbreaking continued as scheduled.
“This groundbreaking is just great news for Cheyenne, great news for Laramie County and wonderful news for the great state of Wyoming,” LEADS CEO Betsey Hale told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “During this time of pandemic and in this time of unrest in our country, we are so fortunate that the Sieberts stayed the course.”
Kennon designs and manufactures products to protect high-value assets for several different industries, particularly in aviation. Kennon began in a garage in California in 1984 and moved to Sheridan in 1989. The company currently employs 61 and plans to employ 87 in five years.
Joe Wright, CEO of Kennon, said company leaders began discussing expansion about four years ago and ultimately selected a site at the Sheridan Economic and Education Development Association (SEEDA)-owned high-tech business park, which was partially funded by a Business Council grant, as well.
Most of Kennon’s business is national and international, and its vendors and customers have been impacted by COVID-19 more than the company itself, Wright said.
“Here in Sheridan, it’s almost like Pleasantville,” he said. “We at Kennon were able to continue to operate because our community took it seriously and we’re rural by nature. Even when events or gatherings were canceled and people were working from home, we were still able to maintain social distancing by getting outdoors in our open spaces. Because of our open spaces we can do a lot that people in other parts of the country simply cannot do.”
There are always a lot of visitors in Sheridan this time of year, but it seems people are especially inclined to escape the “New Yorks and Floridas” of the world right now, Wright added.
“It’s not a stretch to think that the COVID-19 shutdowns and upheaval may cause people and businesses to start seriously thinking about the value of Wyoming’s open space,” he said.
Disruptive MedTech is expanding in Laramie. It launched its initial medical-device manufacturing program at Impact 307, – formerly the Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC) -- a business incubator on the University of Wyoming campus, last December.
The company started generating revenue right away, said Gustave Anderson, Director of Quality, and they are ready to move out of the WTBC and into their own space.
Anderson said they are currently working with Albany County on a lease agreement and remodeling a 5,000- to 6,000-square-foot facility in Laramie. They hope to employ 11 people in 2020 and envision doubling or tripling that in 2021.
The pandemic caused the company to pivot, Anderson added, but it hasn’t altered their expansion plans. Due to the halt in elective surgeries, there was less demand for Disruptive MedTech’s contract manufacturing services. However, the company leveraged its supply chain to distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) in the community, particularly to small health care providers that couldn’t meet minimum-order requirements.
“It’s a strategy that has worked well, and we plan to continue,” Anderson said. “And it has provided a valuable service.”
The company also used the lull in manufacturing to successfully complete its ISO 13485, an international certification for medical component manufacturers, becoming one of the very few manufacturers in Wyoming with such a certification.
For now, Anderson said the team is focusing on getting the company back to work on its medical device manufacturing.
He hopes MedTech can start moving into its new building later this year.
ISA, a multinational rubber dipping factory, is relocating from Oregon to the Union Center Business Park in Evanston.
Plans for the phased relocation include hiring more than 100 employees in Uinta County within five years.
Rocco O’Neill, the Director of Community and Economic Development for Evanston, said the recruitment of ISA has been several years in the making, but a few factors accelerated the process, including the more conservative political climate and the better tax structure in Wyoming.
“The pandemic happened right in the middle of coordinating ISA’s relocation,” O’Neill said. “At that time, everything in Oregon was shut down, but here in Wyoming, we were still pretty open and moving around freely. I think it was kind of an eye-opener that Wyoming doesn’t operate in the same way that the Pacific Northwest does.”
ISA has plans to build a larger 200,000 square-foot facility in the park to manufacture surgical gloves, O’Neill added. The company's target market is in DOD, DOE and other sub-agencies such as TSA, and they would like to take that business from foreign competitors.
The open space is a topic O’Neill always touches on in his conversations with companies considering locating in Evanston.
“We offer a great opportunity for companies to stay in business, employ people and maintain some sort of normalcy,” he said. “We’re also seeing and working to leverage a higher population of remote workers, which helps build a foundation for the larger tech sector.”
Evanston has spent 15 years reinvesting economic development funds from a 2005 Business Council project in the Union Center Business Park, including bringing in fiber.
Those incremental, continued investments not only allowed existing manufacturers in the park to expand their operations, but also led to the attraction of a noted manufacturer like ISA.
Yeezy, Kanye West’s clothing line, is expanding its manufacturing in Cody and partnering with Gap, Inc., for distribution.
“Yeezy is an example of an important trend that is bringing manufacturing back to the United States,” said James Klessens, the President and CEO of Forward Cody. “It’s exciting that Cody and Wyoming get to experience the benefits of that.”
The first phase of major production in Cody will focus on footwear manufacturing, and the on-site sample and prototype laboratory will be staffed in the next 30 to 60 days.
“The entire nation is still reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effects will be felt for many years,” Lopez said. “However, if there is any sort of bright side, it’s that the allure of Wyoming may draw a new influx of workforce, creativity and business leadership, and we are happy to welcome them.”