The Red River Regional Council is offering residents of Grand Forks, Nelson, Pembina and Walsh counties an opportunity to see their own counties through different eyes. For the last month, the council has been working with Roger Brooks, CEO of Roger Brooks International and the Destination Development Association, to identify ways to make the region a better place to live, work and play.

On Oct. 14, 15, 18 and 19, the community will have the chance to get involved in the project as Brooks holds community meetings for each of the four counties, where he will talk about areas in each county he identifies as needing improvement. The presentations will be mostly photographic, and Brooks will offer suggestions on how towns can improve.

The meetings are part of a Red River Regional Council project called Destination Red River Region. With the goal of finding low cost solutions to draw people to Grand Forks, Nelson, Pembina and Walsh counties, the council contracted Brooks, who has brought his development services to more than 22,000 cities and towns across the world during his 40-year career.

Over the course of two weeks, Brooks visited 42 cities in the four counties, taking more than 2,000 pictures along the way. He calls the process of visiting cities “secret shopping.” While secret shopping, he views a town through the eyes of a visitor, and pays attention to factors that contribute to quality of life, tourist attractions and the local economy.

Brooks visited each town with his wife Jane.

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“A woman will always have a different perspective than a man,” said Brooks. “We went to a couple towns where she would reach over and lock the door. I didn’t say a word, but it meant she felt unsafe.”

According to Brooks, 40 of the 42 towns he visited are losing population. Data from the 2020 census backs him up -- most small towns in North Dakota are losing people, while urban centers continue to grow. Brooks believes that millennials are willing to move to small towns in rural areas, but only if the town is making changes like tearing down abandoned buildings and investing in community spaces and programming.

“If you want young families, they need to feel accepted,” said Brooks. “They want to be in a place where they can see positive change.”

Brooks was chosen for the Destination Red River Region project by a regional committee made up of members from each county. According to committee member Amie Vasichek, the committee chose Brooks and the Destination Development Association for his energy and hands-on approach to development. Vasichek is a resident of Nelson county, and is excited about the potential of the four counties working together as a region to drive traffic back to their communities.

“I think everyone has the same goal and same ideas, but maybe he has different ideas that we can harness,” said Vasichek. “He’s going to allow us to work together and feed off each other’s assets.”

Julie Gemmell, a regional committee member from Walsh county, agreed with Vasichek, saying that counties working together as a region is an innovative way to address northeastern North Dakota’s population problems.

“I think working together as a collaborative effort is going to get us further than each county doing something alone,” said Gemmell.

After meetings with the public, Brooks will meet with county committees and other stakeholders in the region to brainstorm suggestions on how to improve each county. In March, Brooks will return to the region with action plans to implement low-cost solutions to draw people to the area.

Meeting dates and times:

  • Grand Forks County: Tuesday, Oct. 19, 9 a.m. - Pheasant Room at the Alerus Center
  • Nelson County: Monday, Oct. 18, 9 a.m. - Lakota Community Center
  • Pembina County: Friday, Oct. 15, 9 a.m. - Akra Hall at Icelandic State Park
  • Walsh County: Thursday, Oct. 14, 9 a.m. - Minto Community Center