Nelson County will need more than 240 new employees over the next two years, according to a survey of the county’s businesses.

The survey also showed that businesses in the county – situated in northeast North Dakota between Grand Forks and Devils Lake – have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and also that business challenges in the county include a lack of housing options and a lack of community support. Overall, according to the survey, the average need for new employees in the county is about two per small business.

The survey, which consisted of a series of interviews with 21 local businesses, is the first part of a business and retention program being conducted by the Red River Regional Council. The results of the survey were discussed at a town hall meeting earlier this month in Pekin, N.D., sponsored by the council and Nelson County Job Development Authority. Attendees were invited to join a discussion about what they would like to see in terms of development in Nelson County, which has a population of about 3,000, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to Dawn Mandt, executive director of the Red River Regional Council, about 50 people attended the event in person, and another 500 watched the Red River Regional Council’s livestream of the event. Mandt says the turnout shows how excited community members are about opportunities for growth in their communities.

“By and large, these areas are interested in creating their own destinies,” said Mandt. “It’s very grassroots-driven because these are small communities, so it’s very much all hands on deck.”

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Angela Jutila, director of the Lakota City Library and owner of J & E Financial Services, served as the emcee at the meeting. As a resident of Nelson County and someone who works closely with local businesses, she sees firsthand the need for a focus on economic growth in shrinking rural communities.

“What comes first, the chicken or the egg? You can’t have someone move to town if you don’t have childcare, but you can’t have childcare if you don’t have employees to have childcare. It can become a vicious circle of trying to find staffing,” said Jutila.

Jutila says among her clients, staffing is the top challenge.

The Red River Regional Council recently conducted similar surveys in the other counties in Region Four, which includes Grand Forks, Pembina and Walsh Counties. With the results of the business retention and expansion surveys, as well as community input, the next step for the Red River Regional Council is to put the findings to use.

In Region Four, this will look like developing a regional action plan with the help of Roger Brooks of the Development Destination Association. Brooks is an author, speaker and community development expert who has helped more than 2,000 communities around the world with branding, marketing and downtown development. Over the next month, Brooks will bring his expertise to Region Four and through collaboration with community members, will create an action plan to promote economic development in each of the four counties.