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SHERIDAN — Next month, Sheridan voters will decide on whether to support a new tax, break a long-standing historical precedent and make Sheridan a bigger shareholder in the fate of the regional oil boom, all by checking one box.
The Sheridan College Technical Center bond initiative aims to renovate and add to the existing instruction space on the campus to accommodate more students in the welding, machine tool technology and diesel technology courses. Property owners would foot the bill via tax at the rate of $2.09 per $100,000 worth of land value.
While public dignitaries and most elected officials have thrown their weight behind the campaign as a homegrown endeavor to promote primarily local interests, the ramifications of the measure passing or failing will echo through the region.
Jay Stender, executive director of Forward Sheridan, said the Sheridan College bond initiative represents a new frontier for the community.
“Having the courage to bring a bond election forward when we haven’t had one for more than 35 years is a demonstration of a paradigm shift in the way the college works,” Stender said.
Over the course of the last three decades, Sheridan College’s financial operations beyond state assistance have been provided via charitable donations from a slew of private donors including the Whitney Benefits and the Homer A. and Mildred S. Scott Foundation.
“Even if they are denied the vote, at least they’ve plowed the ground so we don’t wait another 35 years,” Stender said.
Forward Sheridan has thrown its full support behind the measure, citing the value an educated workforce has in the role of attracting new businesses to the area. Though, Stender has acknowledged that the tax represents a significant expense to many people in Sheridan.
“We have a lot of people who are older or living on a fixed income,” he said. “It’s not a trivial item.”
“Taxation is tough in today’s environment,” Stender said. “But, if it has value, we have a right and responsibility to support that value.”
The value, according to college officials, is filling a massive demand.
Jed Jensen, dean of career and technical programs at the college, says students are beating down the doors trying to get into the programs.
“The diesel program can only take 12 new students right now, and we’ve got 50 applications,” he said.
Jensen said the same is true for the welding and machine tool technology seats, which presently accommodate 16 and 12 students, respectively. Four or five times that many students have applied for the programs.
He said students who manage to nab a seat and graduate with either a certificate or associates degree have job offers before their diploma is in their hands.
“It used to be that in March, employers would come out to the college and have a job fair and meet and interview students,” said Wendy Smith, director of marketing and public information for the college. “This year, they all had their futures lined out by that time.”
Smith said statistics regarding job demand for Sheridan College graduates in these industrial fields are largely anecdotal, as formal surveys are not sent to students after graduation the way they are with other programs like nursing. Despite the lack of hard data, supporters feel the bond issue is a worthy cause.
Sheridan County Commissioner Steve Maier hopes Sheridan voters pass the bond initiative but said voter turnout could be an obstacle, as the Aug. 20 election will most likely have much lower participation than a general election.
“I think there are a lot of people who have learned about the program and are all for it,” he said. “Everyone gets all excited and feels good about it, but until you drag them to the polls, it’s not over.”
College officials, including President Dr. Paul Young, tout the expansion as a venture to enable Sheridan youth to find jobs within the community. Tom Gallagher, manager of research and planning at the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, has served as an advisor to the college and acknowledges that the scope of the expansion project goes beyond Sheridan County.
“What they’re interested in is where the market is heading,” Gallagher said. “For Sheridan, some of that will involve the Bakken.”
The Bakken formation occupies about 200,000 square miles underneath parts of Montana and North Dakota. At the moment, oil boom production via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, happens faster than it can be shipped or piped to refineries.
Sheridan’s economy might not be the most attractive option for a graduate, especially when oil boom wages are a day’s drive away, he said.
“This is a very porous market. People are willing to commute a long way to get that kind of work,” Gallagher said. “The demographics and economy of this part of the country expand and contract. They rarely stand still for very long. Projections for today may change next year.”
Gallagher said during the last oil boom, in-state labor was hard to come by, and when the boom ended, 25 percent of unemployment claims were from workers who went back to out-of-state addresses.
Stender said a real local advantage to the Sheridan economy is that as employment conditions change, the junior college can work with employers to tailor courses for the specific needs of Sheridan’s industries.
“(These technical programs are) the appropriate training for the workforce for the junior college for the next 20 to 30 years,” he said.
Gallagher said in order to appreciate the implications of the expansion, it’s necessary to look at the big picture.
“It’s not just what’s going on locally that’s important,” he said.
However, Jensen says the tech programs will continue to target the numerous local businesses, including L&H Industrial, EMIT Technologies, Vacutech, Craftco Metals and Spring Creek Mine, which will likely continue to vie for trained workers.
Stender said whether graduates set down roots here or choose to branch out, the tech center expansion is a community commitment.
“The best thing we can do is give our educable youth a choice,” he said. “The challenge we have is making Sheridan one of those choices.”