GILBY, N.D. – The face of Gilby is changing. A new community center is in the works on Main Avenue. Across the street, children play on brightly colored, modern equipment in the town park. A few blocks over, at the outdoor ice rink, a new warming house shelters skaters from the cold.

The improvements in Gilby are the combined work of young people who have moved to the town of 232 during the last few years and longtime residents who want them to stay.

The enthusiasm of the townspeople is why Jamie Norstog, 31, moved from Watford City, N.D., to Gilby a year ago to accept a call to be pastor of the Presbyterian Church.

“It’s a very welcoming place, and people see that energy. That’s why I came here,” Norstog said. “That was really exciting for me.”

While many small towns in North Dakota are seeing steady population declines, Gilby is being revitalized through the efforts of young families who have returned to the north-central Grand Forks County town after living somewhere else, or who have moved there from other cities.

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According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Gilby has 32 residents age 20 or younger. That’s eight more people than the number of residents 55 and older.

Kayla Elke, who grew up in Gilby and left after her high school graduation in 2003, returned 11 years later with a husband and two children. Elke, a physical therapist, and her husband, Darin, who works for the U.S. Postal Service, are parents to a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old preschooler.

She and her husband moved back to her hometown because it has affordable housing, her extended family lives there and it’s a great place to raise children, Elke said.

“We’re seeing a shifting from the elderly, when I was growing up, to young families,” she said.

In the past few years, besides the Elkes, five other sets of parents with young children have purchased homes in Gilby, Norstog said.

Anecdotal evidence of the new population is that 40 children and teens attend Gilby Presbyterian Church Sunday School, he said. The church had to remodel a church office to accommodate the increase in attendees.

"It's a wonderful problem to run out of room for kids,” Norstog said.

The renovated playground – which includes a jungle gym, merry-go-round and swings – along with the skating rink and a little lending library on Main Avenue provide recreation for Gilby’s children.

“There’s been a big focus on ‘How can we, as a community, cater to young families?’” Norstog said. Besides putting money into physical recreation activities for youth, Gilby hosts events such as family movie nights. Also, this past October, the community held a Halloween parade that was attended by 90 children, he said.

Gilby volunteers, meanwhile, have spruced up businesses through repair work and painting. That work, the playground renovation and the ice rink warming house were financed with grants from the Main Street Initiative and Myra Foundation and fundraising events.

The next project of the volunteer committee that organized those efforts is a community center, which will include a coffee bar. Longtime Gilby resident Yvonne Cronquist donated the grocery store building to the committee late last year.

Since then, the committee has raised about $40,000 to renovate the building. The group used part of the money, which included a $35,000 grant from the Myra Foundation, to install a furnace in the building. The remodeled grocery store will include a kitchen, gathering space and a coffee bar, which will be staffed by volunteers.

“I’m super excited about it. I think it’s going to be absolutely fantastic," Elke said.

Already, several people have expressed interest in volunteering at the coffee bar, Norstog said. Volunteers also have organized fundraising events, such as making pies for Thanksgiving and sales of Gilby apparel. Volunteers next month will make take-out spaghetti dinners, and a rummage sale is planned in April

Norstog hopes the committee can raise the additional money – about $60,000 – during the next year to finance the community center renovations through the spaghetti dinner, rummage sale and other future events. The volunteer committee also is waiting to hear on other grants for which it applied. The target date for opening the community center is 2022.

“We’re really excited. It has a lot of potential,” he said.