As Michelle Kommer settles into her first year as the leader of North Dakota’s Department of Commerce, she says she wants to educate North Dakotans on how her department works and the value it brings to the state.
Kommer, the former head of the North Dakota Department of Labor, wrapped up her first legislative session as the commissioner of the Department of Commerce earlier this year. Now, she is on the road talking to North Dakotans and North Dakota businesses about how the DOC can help them. Kommer took over the department in January.
The department is engaged with businesses around the world and attempts to entice them to come to North Dakota, connecting those businesses with ones that already are in the state while providing for the state and region, said James Leiman, director of Economic Development and Finance Workforce Development.
“Commerce is more or less the strategy arm that supports industry as well as all the government boards and local economic communities to ensure that we maximize and leverage our investments to their full potential,” he said.
Kommer said she wants the department to do more than just what its statutory requirement states. It's important to her that North Dakotans understand the value the department brings to the state.
“That value would be different today than 20 years ago when the economy was different, when the needs were different,” she said.
Kommer sees her department as a “dot connector,” helping outside businesses connect with North Dakota and state residents to diversify the economy.
The department also helps build capacity to help local economic development organizations solve problems.
“Nobody has enough resources to be able to solve these challenges on their own,” she said.
The department also creates value by elevating North Dakota’s image, not just through tourism, but through economic diversification and workforce, Kommer said.
“It’s absolutely connected to workforce, and it’s absolutely connected to recruiting companies to come into our state and take advantage of the systems we’ve built,” she said.
Using a football comparison, Kommer says she views the commerce department as the Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s. Together, lineman Mike Webster and quarterback Terry Bradshaw won four championships during that decade. Though most people know Bradshaw as the Hall of Fame quarterback, many people haven’t heard of Mike Webster, the Steelers' talented center who wasn't necessarily the face of the Steelers but an important player nonetheless. Still, Bradshaw attributes much of his success to Webster.
Kommer sees a similar parallel with the DOC's work. The local agencies and local people are the face -- or, Terry Bradshaw -- of the economic development projects. Meanwhile, the Department of Commerce is Mike Webster.
“We’re not cutting the ribbon at the grand opening all the time. We may not even be in the literal picture, but we are in the background,” Kommer said. “We work together. In many ways, we’re happy to be in the background, but in some ways, when it comes to the legislative session and appropriations, it’s also very important that you’re able to articulate the value we create.”