Economic Development Takes Center Stage

Sunday, May 01, 2016

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This summer, Sheridan hosted the Wyoming Theater Festival. Talent from across the country came to develop plays and perform them in front of the community and out of town guests. It featured four new works by award-winning playwrights carried out by stage actors and directors from New York and Los Angeles working alongside current and former Sheridan College and area high school students. Participants had two weeks to prepare and two weeks’ worth of performances.

Sheridan’s ultimate goal is to become the premier city for new play development, much as Sundance Film Festival serves as an incubator for new film projects. Sheridan College, Sheridan Economic and Educational Development Authority and Sheridan Travel and Tourism co- sponsored the festival with the WYO THEATER providing the venue and box office support. This is just one more step in a new movement to take historic theaters and rehabilitate them as economic development drivers.

The WYO Theater opened in the 1920s as an extravagant movie and Vaudeville theater called the Lotus. Over the years, the building suffered through many thematic changes to both its interior and exterior before closing in 1982. Community volunteers immediately started work to save the building and it reopened as an entertainment center in 1989 with the City of Sheridan as the passive owner and the WYO Theater, Inc. as the tenant and manager. The City has continued to be involved and supportive of the downtown and expanding the arts economy.

Plans to extend the theater for use by both the community and the college go back many years. The adjacent Perkins Building was purchased by the WYO Theater nonprofit in 2005. In 2011, the WYO Theater donated the building to the City of Sheridan and, with Sheridan College, embarked on a project to renovate the building. Renovation plans evolved into a mostly new building which adjoins the WYO Theater and contains the MARS BLACK BOX THEATER , a lobby, nicer restrooms and accessibility considerations. The project was funded by two $1 million grants from the Wyoming Business Council to the City of Sheridan and a joint fundraising campaign run by the Sheridan College Foundation and the WYO Theater.

The investment in the downtown theater venue for education and performance has attracted other investment and increased visits and spending by residents and tourists alike. At a recent Downtown Sheridan Association Economic Restructuring Committee meeting, Dr. Susan Bigelow, VP for External Relations and Economic Development, NWCCD, heard from downtown proponents, business leaders, and residents. The committee members listed numerous downtown buildings that have been renovated and several that will be renovated for upstairs housing. “Their comments and appreciation for the work the City, College and WYO have been doing in the downtown was heartwarming. Their comments demonstrate the impact the WYO Center has on the downtown and the Sheridan economy. Sheridan is an arts community and the WYO project reflects our commitment to that pillar of the economy,” says Bigelow.

The City of Sheridan, Sheridan College and the WYO Theater are ready for the next phase. Sheridan College, the current owner of the building to the north of the WYO Theater, is prepared to donate this building to the City of Sheridan in order for it to be incorporated into the WYO Education and Performing Arts Center. In November, the Sheridan Economic and Educational Development Authority Joint Powers board approved $200,000 in matching fund for the project. The City of Sheridan is submitting a grant application to the Wyoming Business Council for $2 million. If funding is approved, the building which was built in 1902 as the Bank of Commerce and commonly known as the Hallmark Building, will provide a relocated box office, expanded wing space for the main stage, offices, “Sheridan is an arts’ community and the WYO project reflects our commitment to that pillar of the economy,” – Dr. Susan Bigelow a student sound and lighting laboratory, dance rehearsal space, classrooms and the much needed rehearsal space for children’s performances, community theater, and Sheridan College’s theater program.

“We’re working to make downtown a destination again,” says Chad Banks, manager of Rock Springs’ urban renewal agency. “Taking a building that had been shuttered for ten years and making it a place where people can gather fits with our mission.”

The ROCK THEATER , built in 1948, was transformed into a performing arts and cinema venue available for a variety of events in 2012. The city’s urban renewal agency manages the facility, renamed the BROADWAY , which can be rented out and also brings many professional acts to the stage and screen. The 370 seats retract to open up event space. About 11,000 people walk through the doors each year, attracted by approximately 100 public and private events. The Wyoming Business Council contributed about $1.4 million to the $3 million project.

“Walkability is critical for us,” says Banks. To be a destination, downtown Rock Springs needed to inspire residents to walk beyond a single store. The URA has coordinated a number of projects including a revamped courtyard, improved building facades, an artwalk in the pedestrian underpass, and rehabilitation of the Bunning Transfer Station. The Broadway is an anchor location on the southeast corner of the district.

Located in the heart of downtown Evanston, saving the STRAND THEATRE was imperative for the community. Opened in 1918, the historic Strand Theatre hosted live entertainment as well as motion pictures. The theatre was successful until a fire damaged the building in 2007. The owners of the burned building worked to get it stabilized, but were unable to do more. In 2008, Kim and Kendra West donated it to the Evanston Urban Renewal Agency. Working together, the URA and Sagebrush Theatre Production received an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a cultural hub for the community. The project also received a $1 million in Wyoming Business Council grant funding.

“It was a very controversial project for the Evanston Urban Renewal Agency,” says Jane Law, Urban Renewal Coordinator and Main Street Manager. “We stuck with it and now, after seven long years, the door are open, the lights are on and we have had a wonderful, positive, enthusiastic response from the community.”

The Strand Theatre reopened as the Evanston Cultural Center in March. In April, a local citizen sponsored a Buddy Holly tribute band from Minneapolis which the theatre for two nights. Both Evanston Children’s Theatre and Sagebrush Theatre have performed in the facility. A concert sponsored by The Arts, Inc. and private events are also scheduled for the facility in the near future.

The URA will continue improving The Strand with a sound system and movie equipment. Sagebrush Theatre has received a grant from the Wyoming Community Foundation for lighting. Improvements are also being funded with seat sponsorships. Over eighty chairs have been sponsored so far by supportive community members.

The ATLAS THEATRE in Cheyenne has been used as a community events space for decades as a way for Cheyenne Little Theatre Players to raise additional funds. In the past few years, rentals and special events sponsored by CLTP have increased. Concerts, comedy acts, fundraisers and weddings are common in the building. CLTP also participates in downtown events like Cheyenne International Film Festival and ZombieFest. It holds several sell out viewings of Rocky Horror Picture Show each year. The Ozzymandian comedy troupe also calls The Atlas home.

Sparked by the donation of air conditioning by a sweaty but loyal Old Fashioned Melodrama patron, a new round of renovations have made the space more attractive to mainstream events. Both the lobby and auditorium have received new paint; the bright colors of the Pink Pony Nightclub are now part of a palette more suitable to the history of the building. The façade and upper floors are next on CLTP’s list of projects.

For years, many people in Casper have wanted THE IRIS to serve as a downtown civic auditorium. This year, with a new movie complex coming to the community, the owners of The Iris decide to close its doors. With the downtown plaza developing right next door, Citizens for a Civic Auditorium purchased The Iris in September. Private donations, including one very large contribution at the end, made the purchase possible.

The performance space is expected to seat 1,150 people and the group hopes to attract Artcore, the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra, the Casper Chamber Music Society, schools and other education organizations to the building. The nonprofit’s next step is to update plans and raise the funds necessary for construction. The timeline for the project is three to five years.

As with every movement, developers need to analyze need and potential return before acting. CODY THEATRE is bucking the trend by turning its performance space back into a movie theater. Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue played at Cody Theatre six nights a week for eight summers. In 2016, the show will move to the spacious performing space at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Management at Cody Theatre looked at the needs of the community and decided affordable and niche entertainment was needed. Starting in the spring of 2016, the theatre will show cult classics, older new releases, and special event screenings for holidays and local festivals. The stage will remain in place for occasional live performances.

With Wyoming’s downtowns staged for new development, culture as part of a thriving economy is proving to be a major player. Preserving key buildings of a community, attracting local and out-of-town visitors, and revitalizing struggling areas are important reasons for ACTION!

Category: Success Stories