Regional coalitions aim to stem rural decline

North Dakota State Roundup

Published January 1, 1996  | January 1996 issue

Two clusters of counties and Indian reservations are part of an effort to stem out-migration and to create economic development opportunities in rural communities.

Known as Rural Economic Area Partnerships (REAP), the five-year pilot projects are funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with $10 million available for each region. The USDA plans to use the lessons learned from the North Dakota projects to assist other rural American communities revitalize their farm-dependent economies and reverse population trends. REAP objectives are to:

  • support specialized agricultural, manufacturing and service markets;
  • create regional strategies to revitalize the economy;
  • install state-of-the-art telecommunication systems to enable the regions to compete in new markets;
  • outsource government services by contracting for certain functions in rural areas; and
  • support essential municipal functions, including education, housing and health care.

One of the two programs covers Bottineau, McHenry, Pierce, Rolette, Towner and Benson counties, and the Turtle Mountain and Devils Lake Indian reservations in the North Central region—an area of 50,000 people scattered across 8,900 square miles that has suffered high unemployment and population loss due largely to lack of job opportunities.

Representatives of those counties and Indian reservations formed the Center of North America Coalition for Rural Development (CONAC) to develop and oversee the project. CONAC also is working with CEO Praxis Inc., a Grand Forks community and economic development firm, the University of North Dakota and Minot State University to develop and implement a strategic plan. "We think the roads will lead back to North Dakota some day," says Terry Zeltinger, CONAC's chair and formerly a banker within the project area and now president of United Community Bank of Burlington. Zeltinger says he sees a paradigm shift in that people in the region are empowering themselves to make something happen.

Doug McDonald, senior associate with CEO Praxis, worked with CONAC to conduct eight town meetings over the past month. "Decision-makers attended the meetings—those people who can and want to make a difference," says McDonald, adding that attendance averaged 40 people, with 80 appearing at the final meeting on the Turtle Mountain Reservation.

Zeltinger says, "Historically, we've thought provincially rather than looking at the region as a neighborhood." Zeltinger adds that the program is establishing "a whole new level of coordination between federal government and local areas."

A similar program is under way in the southwest corner of the state and includes the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and Billings, Golden Valley, Slope, Bowman, Adams, Dunn, Stark and Hettinger counties.

Kathy Cobb