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Tessa Sandstrom, Bismarck, Published January 01 2014

Letter: Viewing ND’s oil boom in proper perspective

‘One thing is clear: A lot of people leave. No other state faces the (brain drain) problem to the degree that North Dakota does. There’s nobody that’s worse off than us.”

This was the sentiment of Roger Johnson in 2003. Johnson, who was North Dakota agriculture commissioner at the time, was one of many who lamented what seemed to be an irreversible trend: young North Dakotans leaving, never to return to the state. North Dakota was the only state between 2000 and 2003 to lose population, according to an article in USA Today in 2004.

But not anymore.

Today, North Dakota’s population is at the highest level it has ever been, thanks to a vibrant economy and tens of thousands of job openings. These economic opportunities have helped North Dakota earn the top spot on MoneyRates.com’s list of Best States for Young Adults for the second year in a row. North Dakota even has the highest proportion of adults 18 to 24 than any other state, as many young people return home to North Dakota for jobs or to start their own businesses, while countless others migrate here for a fresh start.

Variety of jobs

Often, the energy industry and the high wages that come with it are credited for bringing many of these young people here. Many believe all of these jobs require hard labor and may be gone as quickly as they came. This is not true.

While there are many jobs that do entail working long hours in harsh conditions, many more are the long-term professional careers that so many young people once left the state to pursue. These careers require education, training and skills in computers, math, science, economics, engineering, law and the trades, among others. In addition, they are located statewide, from Williston to Fargo and Dickinson to Grand Forks and beyond.

In Grand Forks, engineering firms like AE2S and architecture firms like JLG Architects are growing and hiring as they work to meet the needs and demands of activity in the west. In Fargo, manufacturers like True North Steel and technology companies like Pedigree Technologies have grown significantly as they develop the products and software needed in the oil and gas industry.

Quality of life

While many view these opportunities for growth as a good thing, there are some who ask: “What about the quality of life? What about our changing towns?”

Rapid growth has come with challenges, and all too often we become nostalgic for the way it used to be – when we knew nearly everyone we met walking down the street, and how we never had to wait in lines at the grocery store or to be seated at a restaurant.

Yet, I was recently reminded by Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley that it is all about perspective.

Wrigley was keynote speaker at the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation’s Annual Dinner, and he spoke of the transformation we have seen in North Dakota over the past decade, and the nostalgia many feel when looking back. “But,” he said, reminding us that we have come from decades of decline to a new era of prosperity, “You can’t have it both ways. There is nothing nostalgic about our small towns blowing away and our schools closing.”

Once were closing

Yes, we may not know everyone we meet when we walk down the street, but we forget that for many years in some of our shrinking rural towns, we may not have even met a single person. Yes, we may have to wait in line in a grocery store or restaurant from time to time, but we forget that many grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses were closing because there were far too few customers to even form a single line.

Today there are more people in these communities than ever before, and we’ve watched as communities large and small have grown, adding new restaurants, retail stores and venues that will provide the amenities, entertainment and services for which so many young people once left North Dakota.

One person working to provide those amenities is Marcus Jundt, an entrepreneur and one of the original investors of Caribou Coffee. Three years ago, he moved from Minneapolis to Williston, calling the small city “the most exciting place in America” outside of perhaps Silicon Valley. In an interview on CNBC, Jundt said, “I simply concluded this: I saw the greatest boom during my lifetime ... and I didn’t want to be 80 years old and look back at my life and say, ‘I missed the neatest thing that has ever occurred in my life.’ ”

Several factors

The reversal in North Dakota’s population trends cannot be attributed to only one factor or one industry. Rather, it is the result of a constantly growing and diversifying economy where each of our growing sectors – agriculture, energy, technology, manufacturing, etc. – rely on and augment one another. This has

led to an era of entrepreneurialism that likely has not been seen in the state.

And, if you don’t want to meet any more strangers walking down the street, stop and introduce yourself. It could be a young person who, given the opportunity, will become an active resident and leader in the community, helping drive it and our state toward continued growth and an even better quality of life than we possibly could have imagined.

Sandstrom is communications manager for the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a private organization of business, industry and other groups associated with the oil and gas industry.