SHERIDAN — Local efforts continue to focus on diversifying the economy and strengthening the sectors that already add dollars to downtown businesses and entrepreneurs.

While the Whitney Center for the Arts will benefit students and staff at Sheridan College, it will also benefit the Sheridan community and economy, school officials said.

“This is one of those areas — the arts — that ties back to the regional economic studies that have been done,” Sheridan College President Paul Young said, adding that the facility and the classes that will be taught within it will add capacity in economic sectors the community has defined as critical.

Sheridan College’s Dr. Susan Bigelow emphasized that while students learn to create, they also learn to sell their work, market themselves and become entrepreneurs.

“This is one more expression of Mr. Whitney’s legacy — helping the college align with the community so we can grow and thrive,” Young said.

Bigelow agreed with the ways in which the new facility can help move the school and the creative economy forward.

Bigelow, the vice president for external relations and economic development, noted that multiple economic studies in the area have pointed to the arts as an economic sector that can be nourished and grown.

One local economic study asked two questions: Does Sheridan have a creative economy? What should Sheridan do to help develop that sector of the economy?

The answer to the first question, Bigelow said, is yes.

“We have authors and painters and craftsman — like Tom Balding from Bits and Spurs — and others,” Bigelow said. “We also have a lot of infrastructure that helps create avenues for those people — like Jentel and Ucross foundations and The Brinton.”

Bigelow added, though, that the studies also noted that all of those pieces aren’t necessarily tied together right now.

“What the study helped us do is look at a number of occupations and businesses in the area — ones that have been here for awhile — and celebrate them and recognize them as related,” Bigelow said.

Bigelow also serves on a group called the Creative Economy Council, which received grant money to study ways to help grow that sector of the local economy. It includes individuals from multiple organizations in Sheridan and Johnson counties.

The next step, after those studies, Young said, was figuring out how the college could help.

He said adding space and instructors to the arts programs at the college will help build that creative economy. It will also help the college recruit more students to Sheridan, which also adds a boost to local revenue.

The arts, though, aren’t new to the college.

“The college has had arts and music programs going back to 1958,” Young said.

Back then, he said, the facilities were like buildings from “The Jetsons,” full of the newest and best technology that will help move the college into the future.

“The same things are at the heart of the things happening here now, we’re blossoming into the next generation,” Young said.

While developing students, the college is also developing consumers of the arts, Bigelow said.

It gives students, staff and community members the chance to participate in and become patrons of the arts.

“I’m not going to get on stage,” Bigelow said. “But I’m going to buy tickets.”

Bigelow added that developing artists and consumers of the art will help build the creative economy and encourage cultural tourists — those who travel to visit galleries, attend plays or take in concerts.

Sheridan stakeholders visited Cedar City, Utah, to learn about their theater festival and learned that one study that community conducted showed that while locals spend about $6.72 per day on arts, cultural tourists spend approximately $92.

“If you’re going to drive and spend the day to enjoy a show, you’re going to spend more than the local person who visits those venues more regularly,” Bigelow said. “Encouraging cultural tourism is one of the ways the college is emphasizing its role in the creative economy.”

The more offerings Sheridan has for those tourists, the longer they’ll stay in town.

Sheridan Artists Guild Et al board President Laura Lehan recently echoed that sentiment.

“When we’re all strong in what we’re doing and differentiate ourselves, we bring the whole creative economy up,” Lehan said at a local meeting of an economic development board.

By Kristen Czaban