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Dean Bresciani, Published November 07 2013

Bresciani: Instructive, revealing visit to ND’s oil country

As I do every few months, I recently spent several days traveling through part of our state in listening sessions with the people North Dakota State University serves. The trips are simply to listen, firsthand, about people, their lives and challenges, and to discuss how NDSU can help support their success. That’s my typical introduction to the conversations, and then I like to listen, ask a few questions and learn. This time I went back to the Oil Patch. It was an intriguing experience, and I’d like to share some observations.

First, it’s worth noting that in spite of pervasive, and in some cases overwhelming, challenges, in proportions that people outside of the area may struggle to fully appreciate, at the end of the day, people in the Oil Patch are doggedly committed to where they live and aspire for things to get better. A strong community is a goal we all undoubtedly share for where we live, but many have an easier path to it.

Second, we should understand that just because communities are all in the Oil Patch, no two are alike. Two towns, even if only miles apart, can have varying challenges and visions for the future. In some towns, the way of life has changed in ways that feel overwhelming. Remedies often seem elusive due to incorrect public perception or a sensed lack of support. In others, change has been dramatic, but their “new normal” is a positive adjustment as the foundation of their future and new prosperity.

Even within individual communities, the challenges and future for residents who live in town can be different from people who live nearby. While some can see opportunities for growth and prosperity, farmers and ranchers around them are challenged to capture the opportunities of today’s agriculture economy due to implications of the energy industry.

I came to better appreciate that many in the northwest sense that others in the state don’t know or at times don’t care about their challenges. Don’t hear me wrong – residents in the Oil Patch appreciate the support they have received. But they are frustrated by perceptions that they are getting all they need, when in many circumstances that is not even close to being the case. Much has been provided for infrastructure such as roads, sewer and water and housing, but much more is needed. The commendable state “rainy day” funds are an enigma to them, as I heard repeatedly – their rainy day is now.

Another concern I heard is the frustration of inaccurate national media portrayals of their towns as lawless and unlivable places, which challenges recruiting efforts for workforce talent. These towns need young families to be a part of their exciting new futures. This is a complex challenge, but it is vital to keep the socio-economic fabric of their communities intact.

One seemingly simple concern came up in literally every conversation, but it’s a concern with broad and substantial implications: road dust. I’m not talking about simple house dust. I’m taking about constant, blinding, choking dust that has implications ranging from driving safety to health concerns for crops, livestock and humans alike [Note to self and researchers at NDSU: There must be a science-based solution for solving that!]

At the end of the day, though, every conversation ended with the North Dakota resolve to “get ’er done,” but we need to work collectively as a state for the best interests of all. People I talked with know that’s often an imperfect process that will take years to fully accomplish. But I left feeling a new responsibility to help bridge our state through more experiences like the one I’d just had.

So if you live outside of the Oil Patch but have a chance to visit the area, let me vouch for the warm welcome you’ll receive when you pull up a chair at Joyce’s Café in Stanley. Try the “half breakfast,” have a cup of coffee or two, and strike up a conversation. My bet is you’ll learn some new things about the challenges we’ll need to address to fully realize our state’s future opportunities.

Bresciani, Ph.D., is president of NDSU.