Group promises 'peace, purpose,' plenty of room in northwest N.D.
By JAMES MacPHERSON Associated Press Writer
WILLISTON - Kathleen Kopa immediately noticed a difference in hand gestures when she moved from a suburb of New York City to a small town in northwestern North Dakota."People are so kind here that everybody waves at everybody," said Kopa, who moved to Mohall three years ago to escape the "noise, crowds and crime" of the big city. "In New York, they don't wave with the whole five fingers."Kopa, 66, moved with her husband, Frank, to Mohall, a town of about 800 people north of Minot, after visiting their son and daughter-in-law, who had moved to the region a year earlier from Virginia to start a carpet cleaning business.
"We fell in love with the state, people - the whole atmosphere," Kopa said. "It's almost like living in a warm blanket, people are so kind."Kopa's husband died a couple of years after moving to Mohall. He wanted to be buried there instead of his native New York, she said.Kopa and her family are what a group formed to boost the population in the northwest corner of the state call "21st century pioneers.""The middle of nowhere is quickly becoming more chic," says Steve Slocum, a spokesman for Northwest North Dakota Marketing Alliance.The alliance, which represents six counties, was formed in 2002 and set a goal of luring "the right" 5,000 people to the area. In four years, the group can count about 20 who have moved to the region due to its effort, Slocum said."It's a start," Slocum said, "and we're darn proud of those 20 people."At least one transplant from a big city didn't have what it took to stay in the region and moved back, he said."We're not looking for 5,000 people," said Slocum, who works as a marketing director for a bank in Williston. "We're looking for the right 5,000 people."Slocum acknowledges that harsh winters and isolation can try one's soul. Uncongested highways cut through fields of crops, cows and hay bales. Abandoned farm homes that lean from time are common on the near-treeless terrain and wire fences are sometimes the only windbreak for miles."This isn't for everybody," Slocum said. "We absolutely try and give them as much information up front before they make the plunge."Slocum's group touts the region's elbow room, low crime and cost of living, clean air and water and good schools. The group's Web site also says northwestern North Dakota has "magnificent wildlife and very few bite.""We are slowly and methodically marketing what we've got: "Pace, Peace and Purpose," Slocum said.The northwestern part of the state, with about 93,000 residents spread over six counties, is among the least populated regions in North Dakota, a state that has seen more people going than coming over the past decade, said Richard Rathge, the state data center's director and North Dakota's demographer.The Census Bureau's most recent North Dakota estimate put the state's population at 636,677 on July 1, 2005, up about 370 from 2004 but down from 642,200 in 2000. Only Vermont and Wyoming have fewer residents than North Dakota.The alliance started with a $3,400 federal grant and $10,000 from James Jorgenson, who owns three banks in the region.The group has used the money to develop a Web site to market Burke, Divide, Mountrail, Renville, Ward and Williams counties."I agreed to help get this going to brainstorm ideas to help get people to come to northwest North Dakota," Jorgenson said. "We just had to do something.""If nothing else, it's been a very good exchange of ideas, and it's kept our minds alert," he said.Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said his city has seen a population spike of "several hundred" people in the past couple of years because of oil activity in the region. He estimates at least a couple of hundred oil-related jobs in the region are unfilled because of the lack of workers.Those are not necessarily the type of workers that the alliance is trying to lure, said alliance secretary Bernie Arcand of Ray."Oil and agriculture - those are our anchors," Arcand said. "We're trying to diversify from that."The group wants to attract people with high-tech skills who can market their products over the Internet."Our target demographic is 20- to 45-year-olds with children," Slocum said. "That's who we're marketing to."Shawn and Esther Oehlke appeared fit the bill. The couple, who are in their 40s, moved to Crosby in 2004 from Albuquerque to start SEO Precision Inc., a company that designs fast steering mirrors that are used to direct laser beams. The company also is developing a floodlight that would illuminate a 20,000-square-foot area using less than 100 watts of total power.The couple brought two of their six children to town; four of their children are grown.They lease a nearly century-old building in the town of about 1,100 people for their business. Eight apartments rented in the upper part help offset their costs, Shawn Oehlke said.The alliance holds up the Oehlkes as a shining example of success. But the couple say it's been difficult dealing with area residents who know about farms but do not understand the workings and needs of a high-tech company.The Oehlkes said they have received little support in pursuing grants and other financial packages that have to get checked off by local leaders first."These farmers look at us cross-eyed and think we're trying to take their money," Esther Oehlke said.Still, the Oehlkes say they have no regrets; their children are getting a good education, and they like the area."We plan on staying a long time," Esther Oehlke said. "Personally, it's been very rewarding. Businesswise, we're having a very heavy battle with town fathers, with the level of control of they want."Jeff Zarling and his family moved to the Williston area a few years ago from the Minneapolis area to start Dawa Development LLC, a Web site development company he runs from his home.Zarling said the time he spent commuting in the big city is now time he can spend with his wife and two children."You know everybody here - it's a nice feeling," Zarling said. "You can get involved here and feel like you're part of society."Zarling said he moved to the area shortly before the alliance began its recruiting drive."I believe very much in what they're doing," Zarling said. "I think they've got the right idea."Zarling still likes to visit museums with his children or eat at fancy, big city restaurants."Things that you miss in the big city, you can always go back and visit," he said.