WALHALLA, N.D. – Nathan Smith left his native North Dakota for the Twin Cities about 14 years ago. There wasn’t much for software development jobs here at the time, he said.
Through the years, he’s seen those sorts of jobs move offshore, to places like Vietnam and India.
He pondered how software development jobs could be kept in the U.S.
One idea: setting up in a smaller town to lower costs.
“Then we could compete closer to what offshore would provide,” Smith said, also noting the advantages of being in the same time zone and speaking the same language as clients.
A year and a half ago, Smith, who grew up in Minot and attended North Dakota State University, opened On Prairie Software on the main drag of Walhalla, which is five miles from the Canadian border.
Smith has family in the area, and contacts with the city’s former economic development director and other local players made Walhalla, population 963 according to 2013 estimates, the right spot for his new venture.
Leon Dubourt, former president of the local bank, set up Smith with office space downtown. Josh Klug, regional director of the Grand Forks Small Business Development Center, advised Smith on starting a new company and available resources.
Smith received financing from the city of Walhalla ($10,000 loan), Red River Regional Council ($36,000 loan) and the Pembina County Job Development Authority ($50,000 loan), said Dawn Keeley, executive director of the council and the JDA. Job Services of North Dakota also provided employee training dollars.
Keeley said the Red River Regional Council had discussed leading edge technologies as part of its economic development strategic planning.
“With technology today, it opens the door for rural communities to capture the benefit of a tech firm,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be only in the urban centers.”
Rural communities in the state tend to be “fiber fed,” meaning they have the capacity for high-speed Internet. They also may have empty buildings to offer.
North Dakota’s tight labor market is probably less tight in smaller communities, Keeley said, and rural communities may be more likely to put money on the table to assist businesses.
“In a community like Walhalla, a handful of jobs is meaningful,” she said. “They were willing to take the risk.”
On Prairie Software is focused on mobile development, such as apps for smartphones, Smith said. As his experience is primarily in Microsoft Dynamics GP, On Prairie can integrate that accounting software into mobile apps, though not everything it builds would be integrated.
Smith, who still lives in the Cities, has hired two Walhalla residents, and plans to hire three more employees in the next year, with a goal of 15 in five years. But he wondered: How would he get software developers to Walhalla?
He may have found an answer at the local high school.
“If we could start some programs in the high school level that they could start learning at an early age, it would provide them a valuable skill,” Smith said. “The benefit for me, potentially some of them would want to stay in Walhalla.”
To start, Smith will be a guest presenter in the Walhalla High School’s multimedia class for a couple weeks in March. The class features 18 students, mainly freshmen, said Paul Stremick, superintendent of the North Border School District.
“We thought this would be great,” he said. “We’re thinking that will be of great interest to the students.”
As of this fall, every student has a Chromebook, a move made to better engage students and hopefully improve achievement, Stremick said.
Depending on how the first unit goes, Stremick said he’s open to a semester-long programming course, especially if Smith is willing give training to the instructor.
Stremick said Smith’s efforts are great for the city and area. “Walhalla is like most small towns, declining in population, and they need some businesses to move in,” he said.
Smith said most of his clients will be from across the U.S., bringing new money into Walhalla, as well as a new field of work for residents.
“A lot of the jobs I see there are more of hard labor jobs. It’s decent pay, but they’re not the kind of job that everyone is looking for,” Smith said. “This is a career or industry that is not available in small towns and I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t be.”