SHERIDAN — While Weatherby, Inc.’s president, the Wyoming governor and other local leaders all cited last year’s SHOT Show as a turning point in getting the firearms manufacturer to move to Sheridan, the process to land the deal began more than a decade ago.
Community leaders formed economic development groups like the Sheridan Economic and Educational Development Authority, installed infrastructure for the Sheridan High-Tech Business Park and emphasized technical training at the college, all with the hope of someday bringing companies like Vacutech and Weatherby to the community.
The Sheridan Economic and Educational Development Authority formed in 2007 as a joint powers board consisting of representatives from the city of Sheridan, Northern Wyoming Community College District and Sheridan County School District 2, though SCSD2 dropped out in 2013. The purpose, according to the group’s bylaws, is to “foster collaboration in construction and operation of facilities and programs furthering educational and economic development of Sheridan County.”
SEEDA got off to a rough start with the failed Hand-In-Hand Early Childhood Education Center operated by the Sheridan Quality Child Care Initiative.
Construction of the Hand-in-Hand Center was partially funded by a Business Ready Community Grant from the Wyoming Business Council on land gifted to SEEDA.
In February 2011, the SQCCI board reported that $15,000 of the organization’s funds had been lost through embezzlement. The Hand-In-Hand Early Childhood Center closed later that year. Since then, the First Light Early Education Center has leased the building from SEEDA.
While the SQCCI project failed, SEEDA has experienced primarily success since then. SEEDA owns the land in the Sheridan High-Tech Business Park, where Vacutech operates and soon Weatherby’s headquarters will be located. The joint powers board has also supported community projects like the Start-Up Challenge that encouraged local entrepreneurs to move forward with the development of business plans, helping to give new and existing businesses a leg up.
In addition, SEEDA owns property in the Sheridan Commercial Park on the southeast edge of the city. In 2016, Advanced Electrical Contracting, Inc. purchased 3.63 acres in the park and Prime Real Estate Holdings, LLC, bought 5.34 acres.
“When SEEDA was formed, nobody knew what the opportunities would be,” Sheridan College President and SEEDA board member Dr. Paul Young said. “But part of community readiness is being opportunistic; it’s making things work.”
High-Tech Business Park
In January 2010, Sheridan City Council approved an agreement stating that John E. Rice & Sons would trade 38.5 acres in the northern portion of the city for the city’s extension of water and sewer lines to the property.
In June 2010, the city received a $2.6 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council to fund the infrastructure improvements for that land, which would become the Sheridan High-Tech Business Park.
At the meeting where the application was approved by the city council, then Mayor Dave Kinskey — who is now a Wyoming legislator — said, “We’ve talked about diversifying our economy in Sheridan, and it’s high time we did it. The boom is busted, and this is what we have waiting in the wings.”
In 2012, Vacutech moved to the area. Initially, the company brought 20-30 jobs to Sheridan but now employs more than 125 people.
With Weatherby, Inc.’s facility — which will be owned by SEEDA and paid for primarily by a more than $12 million state grant — more than 200 people could be employed on the north side of Sheridan.
In addition, the Sheridan College AgriPark is located nearby, and there are plans for a seventh elementary school and a sports complex in the area. The potential for additional homes and businesses is high, with one gas station already under construction near the new North Main Interchange.
For many years, the Northern Wyoming Community College District operated as an introductory school for those students seeking four-year degrees. Students often spent two years at the local college before moving on to larger universities.
About a decade ago, though, a shift occurred.
“Anyone who was literate and knew the national trends noticed that there was a huge need for technical skills,” Whitney Benefits board President Tom Kinnison said.
In 2013, Whitney Benefits announced the creation of the Jobs, Education and Technology (JET) Program, which was a partnership to fund four new instructor positions for five years. The program allowed Sheridan College to expand high-demand programs like machine-tool technology, welding and the performing arts. The city of Sheridan matched Whitney’s yearly pledge to help fund the machine-tool technology instructor and the Perkins Foundation matched the pledge for a welding technology faculty position. Two anonymous donors also funded positions in agricultural sciences and the performing arts.
“We saw the shift that not all students need a bachelor’s degree,” Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan, said. Kinner is a former NWCCD board member and board president. “They could go to our programs… and with a couple of good years of solid training they could be set up for a good career.”
That shift in focus to technical skills has provided a steady stream of employees for businesses in health care, dentistry and manufacturing. Kinner and Kinnison both noted that few students leave those high-demand programs at Sheridan College without job offers.
While the Sheridan community has had at least two big wins — Vacutech and Weatherby — in terms of recruiting businesses to the area, the task isn’t over.
Kinner said local leaders have already started discussions on what can be done next.
New programs at both the Sheridan High School and Sheridan College have emphasized computer science skills, with the hope that in building a skilled workforce in that area, Sheridan can add another business to its repertoire. That goal has also been reflected in the goals outlined by ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming), which earlier this month released preliminary recommendations for the state Legislature to consider.
One of the recommendations of ENDOW was for the state to “provide equitable opportunities for students to learn computer science.”
Kinner emphasized that a wider focus doesn’t mean Sheridan can turn away from the methods that have already brought businesses to the area.
“This isn’t just growth,” he said. “It’s stability that we’re trying to gain.”
Leaders have set the stage for continued growth in the community with economic development efforts, infrastructure projects and high-quality technical training, but their hope is that Weatherby’s recruitment will now create a snowball effect, bringing new opportunities to Sheridan and its residents.