If the state of Wyoming were looking for a new slogan, I might suggest "Wyoming: Not for Vegetarians." That's based on a whirlwind press tour of central Wyoming sponsored by the Wyoming Business Council, which is working hard to attract new companies to the area with the promise of no income tax, skilled workers and affordable real estate. In a day and a half, journalists representing newspapers in the United States, Germany and China visited Hi Mountain Jerky, which sells spice blends and tools for jerky making, a tannery that processes animal hides for tying fly-fishing flies, an outdoor survival school, a compass manufacturer, and restaurants specializing in steak and prime rib.
Wyoming, best known for its wide-open spaces, crystalline skies and outdoor recreation, has more to offer business owners than beef: It has no business or personal income tax, no tax on bank accounts or assets, a pro-business legislature and lots of cheap land. In fact, lots of land and a skilled work force prompted Lowe's, the home improvement chain, to build a 1 million-square-foot distribution center in Cheyenne.
"We have so much space," says Aliza Sherman, a marketing rep for the Wyoming Business Council who recently left a frenetic life in New York City to move out West. "Wyoming is not just a great place to do business; there's an incredible quality of life here."
In Riverton, for instance, you can rent a three-bedroom house for $600 a month or a mobile home lot for $125. There's a community college, a well-rated hospital and annual events, including a hot air balloon festival, the Wild West Winter Carnival and the Wyoming Cowboy Poetry Roundup. Riverton is also about 150 miles from Yellowstone National Park.
Riverton sits in Fremont County, home to the 2.2-million acre Wind River Indian Reservation. The Wind River Mountains have more than 40 peaks that top 13,000 feet and 150 glaciers. Alan Moore, a local CPA and member of the Riverton Economic and Community Development Association, says one of the area's biggest challenges is the high unemployment rate among the local Native American tribes.
"A lot of people don't understand how to do business on a reservation because it's a sovereign nation," says Ernest Mike Lawson, a leader of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. "We are looking at how to create jobs to get away from a 70 to 80 percent unemployment rate." In recent months, says Lawson, tribal leaders signed contracts with companies to manufacture lasers and plans to make high-tech mobile cameras for factories that will stream live video pictures to distant engineers monitoring plant operations.
Fate and a fierce blizzard forced members of the Arapaho and Shoshone tribes, longtime enemies, to share the stark windswept Wyoming reservation, established in 1868. The U.S. government was moving the Arapahos through Wyoming on their way to Nevada when bad weather stranded the tribe--for good. Today, there are about 4,200 Shoshone living on the east side of the reservation and 7,500 Arapaho living on the west side. About 20,000 residents in all live on Indian land, Lawson said.
A newly formed, 12-member joint tribal council is working with city, county and state officials to promote business development. The federal government has also provided tax incentives for businesses willing to move to the county. Home to about 30,000 residents, the county suffered a major blow in 1985 when the last iron ore mine closed and 4,000 residents moved away in search of new jobs.
A Boon to Entrepreneurship
Steve Kennerk is one of the entrepreneurs who stayed around. A few years ago, he quit his job as a loan officer to turn his passion for tanning hides into a business, Rocky Mountain Dubbing Co, in Lander, Wyoming. At first, he focused on preparing deer, bison and sheepskin for use as rugs and wall hangings. But soon fly-fishing enthusiasts began buying his dyed deer hide to tie flies. Now, every year, he sells and ships about 500,000 plastic bags filled with fur and other materials to fly makers all over the world. Since florescent green is the company's best-selling color, I spent $3.75 for one as a souvenir.
Across the field from Kennerk's curiously named Rocky Mountain Dubbing Co. is the Eagle Bronze Co. Visitors to the foundry gasp when they spot a herd of life-sized bison commissioned by actor Kevin Costner for his ranch--the huge bronze animals appear to be cavorting in the field.
Sculptors from across the country send their clay molds to be prepared for casting in bronze. The foundry can cast small pieces or 50-foot statues destined to decorate buildings and museums.
If you own a compass, lightweight camping stove or binoculars, there's a good chance they were made in Riverton by employees of the Brunton Co. The company, whose motto is "Get Out There," recently started making and selling the "SolarPort 2.2," a $95 solar-powered recharging unit for computers and cell phones.
Before heading back to New York, we spent the night at the scenic Black Mountain Guest Ranch a few miles from Lander and visited the National Outdoor Leadership School, known as NOLS. College students and adults from all over learn how to survive under duress during challenging expeditions to far-off places. They begin and end their training in the new headquarters building in downtown Lander.
Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and the author of201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business. For a free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," send your name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 or e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah Prior contributed to this report.