Before the pandemic, Cavalier, N.D., was on a revitalization trend, and the town of 1,200 has only become more vibrant in recent years. Kyle Gagner, who has long been involved in the town's economic development, doesn't see that trend ending because of the pandemic.
As the population in Pembina County has continued to decline, Cavalier has managed what many small towns struggle to do: retain and attract young people.
"I think there's a tipping point, but I can't quite figure out what that tipping point is," Gagner said. "Is it a population number? Is it a distance from a larger community center? I don't know what that is, but there's some special sauce here that we've got that has allowed us to retain those people."
On a recent sunny summer day, that vibrancy was on full display. Speakers on Main Street played '80s hits while children rode their bikes. Nearby, a woman tended to hanging flower baskets on a street corner. "Open" signs twinkled up and down the street.
Speaking proudly about her town, Cavalier Mayor Lacey Hinkle was quick to point out that the town last year received the Revitalizer Award in the state's annual Main Street Awards. This year, the town is up for the Governor's Project of the Year for the town's Cavalier Bucks program, which encourages residents to put money back into the local economy.
The program was developed by the city council after federal stimulus checks came out in April.
"A councilman had the idea," she said. "He gave me a call and he's like, 'Hey, how do we keep the stimulus dollars local? Let's brainstorm here.' So he and I sat down with our auditor and kind of worked on the nuts and bolts of it to figure out how we could get it rolling."
Through the program, shoppers can be reimbursed for 10% of their local purchase of up to $1,000. Since the program began on April 20, Hinkle said 74 Cavalier Bucks participants have spent $77,245.75 in local businesses. The program will run through Sept. 1, though Hinkle said they hadn't yet ruled out the possibility that the program will be extended if it continues to be successful.
RELATED: Despite setbacks, historic cinema owner in Cavalier doesn't plan on going anywhere | Six best burgs of Minnesota, North Dakota: With many unknowns about COVID-19 in Cavalier, residents push back against misinformation | Cavalier Public School District adapts to COVID-19 by encouraging '21st century learners'
Money for the program comes from the city's Growth Fund, which is funded by city sales tax dollars. At its July meeting, the council voted unanimously to allocate $5,000 from the fund to the Cavalier Bucks program.
The success of Cavalier Bucks is part of a larger trend Hinkle and other business owners have noticed throughout the pandemic: Cavalier residents seem to be shopping local more often.
While many businesses, such as restaurants, saw their revenue suffer due to the shutdown, many essential businesses that have remained open have seen steady or even good business, according to Hinkle.
Wayne Jenson, the owner of Wayne's Variety in downtown Cavalier, said his business has remained consistent during the pandemic, which he guesses can be attributed to the wide variety of essentials he sells at his general store. Hinkle said many local hardware stores, in particular, report seeing a boost in business this summer.
She said that trend is likely due in large part to the fact that people are leaving town less often. With many residents reluctant to travel to more urban areas, such as Grand Forks, to do their shopping, she suspects many have begun looking to their own town to meet their needs.
She suspects for many Cavalier residents, it's been an eye-opener about the variety of options they have in their small town, and she's optimistic that bump in local business will outlast the pandemic.
"I really hope that people will see the value in everything that we have here," she said. "We were always big on stressing, shop local, shop local, and how your sales tax dollars can benefit the town as a whole, and I think that people are really starting to get that. They see like, 'Hey, I don't have to leave town to go get some of these things,' and it helps everyone."