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‘Something to talk about’

Creating experiences in small towns, building community

by Krista Rausch


Communities across rural America are engaged in revitalization efforts to renew downtown areas and restore them to their former prominence as a center of community activity. In 2020, HomeSnacks named Oakes, pictured here, one of the 10 best places to live in the Peace Garden State.
Photo by NDAREC/Liza Kessel

“If you build it, they will come.” It’s a mantra familiar to baseball fans and ‘90s moviegoers. And, for communities across rural America, it’s also a beacon of hope. No, they’re not building a field of dreams for the baseball legends of the past. They’re involved in a much more important endeavor – saving their towns.

Revitalization efforts come in all shapes and sizes. No matter the project, they all have one thing in common – a focus on quality of life. And for these projects to be successful, communities must often put the past behind them and set their sights on the future.

“It will never go back to the way it was,” says Becky McCray. “We have to start from here and move forward.”

McCray is the co-founder of SaveYour.Town, a consulting agency that provides small communities with practical steps to shape a better future.

“Ninety-nine percent of the best things you can do for your community don’t require anyone’s permission. So, don’t wait until you get it,” McCray says. “We all make our communities through the things we do every day. Spend time in your community and entice people to join you in whatever you are doing. Create an experience that people can join in rather than try to talk them into something.”

With the help of low-interest financing from the Rural Development Finance Corporation (RDFC), people across the state are doing just that – creating experiences that breathe new life into their communities. Owned by North Dakota’s electric and telecommunications cooperatives, RDFC has provided the financing necessary for rural endeavors to succeed in many North Dakota communities. Among the success stories are a regional center for the arts, a water park and an accessible housing complex.
 

Dakota Prairie Regional Center for the Arts Creative Director Elliott Schwab, from left, Managing Director Deb Belquist and Assistant Managing Director Erin Greiner sit on the stage at the Old Church Theatre.
Photos by NDAREC/Liza Kessel
Home to the Dakota Prairie Regional Center for the Arts, the Old Church Theatre is located in downtown New Rockford.

Dakota Prairie Regional Center for the Arts, New Rockford
In 1991, Deb Belquist turned her passion for theater into an experience that put New Rockford, a town of less than 1,500 people, on the map. Each year, Dakota Prairie Regional Center for the Arts (DPRCA) presents three musical productions at New Rockford’s Old Church Theatre, attracting visitors from around the world and talent from as far away as New York City.

“When I got out of school, I realized there was no place for an actor around North Dakota to do a long run,” says Belquist, DPRCA’s founder and managing director. “They would usually do two weekends, maybe six or eight shows. And that is not real life in a theater. You have to get into that 20th show to feel what it's like when it gets boring. You've done it so much. How do you bring that excitement? So, that was my original motivation.”

In the beginning, Belquist’s talent pool was comprised of friends, neighbors and classmates from North Dakota State University’s theater program. But as the performances gained popularity, she cast a wider net.

In 2012, Elliot Schwab came to New Rockford to star in the Tony Award-winning musical, “Urinetown,” an irreverently humorous satire in which no one is safe from scrutiny.

“When I first came here, I thought, ‘What a quaint little community theater,’” Schwab says with a laugh. “And, I was blown away. I just loved it here. I loved the little community. I really, really dug the small-town life. And so, when Deb offered me the job (of artistic director), it wasn’t exactly an arm twist.”

Belquist and Schwab aren’t the only ones who found a home at the Old Church Theatre. After moving to New Rockford with her husband, a local pastor, Erin Greiner was searching for her place in their new community. She found it with DPRCA.

“I honestly don’t know if my husband and I would still be here if I didn’t work here. I loved the community, but I was having a hard time finding where I fit in,” Greiner says. “I would have never expected we’d be here 10 years later. I like the community. I love our little church. I love my job. And now, we have five children who we brought into the community around us. You just can’t beat that.”

Together, the trio has made the Old Church Theatre a tourist attraction, drawing people from across the state, the nation and even the globe. Belquist produces, Schwab brings the productions to life, and Greiner picks up the pieces as they go.

“Once people see a show here, they always come back. We just have to get them in the door,” Schwab says. “Yes, it’s a drive, but we have all kinds of places to stay, and we serve food downstairs before the show.”

In 2016, RDFC provided DPRCA with a $25,000 participation loan, which helped finance renovations to the Old Church Theatre and the Latte Lobby Opera House, which is used for events, education classes and artist housing.

“It’s a really nice experience. And, we always surprise newcomers with the caliber of talent and production value we have,” Schwab says.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucy Fox and her sons, Isaak Larrison, left, and Keon Phommohaxay cool off at the New Town Water Park.
PhotoS by NDAREC/John Kary
The New Town Water Park, which opened in 2019, provides the community with a swimming pool, splash pad with six water fountains and playground equipment.

New Town Water Park, New Town
More than 150 miles east of New Rockford, New Town is also creating experiences for its community members. In 2018, the community broke ground on an outdoor pool, splash pad and playground. The New Town Water Park opened in 2019 and provides kids of all ages with a place to beat the summer heat.

“Our pool failed on us 10 years ago, and we had to tear it out,” says New Town Mayor Dan Uran. “We wanted to get positive things back for our kids. By providing positive activities for our kids, we hope to help guide them in the right direction.”

To fund the project, the community approved a half-percent sales tax. The city will use the sales tax revenue collected over a 10-year period to repay a $250,000 community capital loan provided by RDFC.

The water park has a splash pad for toddlers, a swimming pool with a waterslide that twists and turns, and a playground. Community leaders hope the new attraction will bring people together and provide a better sense of community.

“If you want to bring families here, you’ve got to have positive things for children to do,” Uran says. “Kids can come to the pool and swim or go to the splash pad or eat all kinds of treats.”
 

Dave and Lil Sylvester reflect on memories from their time in Hankinson.
PhotoS by NDAREC/Liza Kessel
Seeing a need for senior housing, the Hankinson Housing Authority constructed an ADA-compliant triplex rental unit for moderate-income renters. Completed in 2020, the Willows has given new and existing residents a place to call home.

The Willows, Hankinson
For Dave and Lil Sylvester, Hankinson is the perfect place to call home. Possessing a deep appreciation for nature, the couple was drawn to the area by the nearby Sheyenne National Grasslands more than two decades ago. While the grasslands drew them to the area, it’s the community that kept them there.

“Lil’s lived in four different states. I’ve lived in eight different states and two countries. And, we both agree, this is the best place for us,” Dave says. “The community leaders are so forward thinking. They’re continuously exploring new ways to make this community better. The people are so friendly. It’s just an awesome place to live.”

After 25 years in the countryside, the retired couple was looking for a simpler life. Maintaining their 8-acre property was becoming more challenging, especially during the winter months. So, when the Hankinson Housing Authority broke ground on the Willows, an ADA-compliant triplex housing unit for moderate income renters, they jumped at the opportunity, signing a lease long before the project was completed.

“When we moved out (to the country property), this young guy said, ‘If you ever decide to sell your place, let me know,’” Dave says. “Well, when they started digging this hole and we found out what they were doing, we put down money and paid our deposit. I called him up, and he says, ‘I was just getting ready to call you!’ They sold their place, which was right down the street, immediately. They moved out and that brought in a new family (to the Hankinson community).”

Completed in 2020, the Willows is located in a quiet neighborhood near the heart of Hankinson. Each of the spacious two-bedroom, two-bathroom townhomes feature an open-concept design with 9-foot ceilings, a large backyard with a concrete patio and privacy fencing between units.

The Willows is one of several housing projects undertaken by the Hankinson Housing Authority, a five-member board appointed by the Hankinson City Council. The project was financed, in part, by a $300,000 community capital loan provided by RDFC.
 

SMALL STEPS FORWARD
McCray credits the success of these projects to the forward-thinking communities who led the charge.

“These are all initiatives that came out of the needs and talents of each community. They had to take small steps, and each one of those little steps mattered,” she says. “It's not going to go back to the way it used to be. We start from here, and we move forward from here. And, the best way to do that is with small steps that give people an experience and something to talk about.”

Krista Rausch is communications specialist for the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives and Capital Electric Cooperative. She can be reached at krausch@ndarec.com.