Retaining the workforce and branding top the list for west-central North Dakota community

 

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

It was a winter-gray morning outside the restaurant but inside, where a group of prairie_business and community leaders gathered for a discussion about Minot, the conversation was welcoming and warm – a typical trait of North Dakota’s Magic City. 

The problem is, if every North Dakota town were successful just for its friendliness each of them across the state would be bursting at the seams. But that’s not the case, and Minot is still trying to figure out how to attract and keep a viable workforce after the oil boom.

When the oil boom busted about four years ago, something happened.

“We didn’t see employment spike, we didn’t see a lot of that fallout in regards to maybe what previous booms caused,” Mayor Shaun Sipma said of the energy sector. “I think when we look at what happened it was more of a settling into a long-term production, a long-term industry.”

The challenges of unemployment are what they have been, or as Sipma explained – “exactly the same as before the bust but with one exception: there’s not a lot of people coming here to build those jobs.”  

That caused the community to refocus its priorities. 

“Our focus now is, how do we keep people here?” Sipma said during the 90-minute discussion on Jan. 28 at the Badlands Restaurant & Bar, where Prairie Business staff met with prairie_business and community leaders. 

 

Quality of life and retaining the workforce

Attracting and keeping a robust workforce in Minot is one of area leaders’ main focus, according to the conversation at the roundtable luncheon. And while the city dubbed “magic” is still trying to find a wand to do that, it has been able to identify some of its needs and wants. 

Sipma said the assets the community doesn’t want to lose are those leaving high school or graduating from Minot State University. Those up-and-coming talents have a lot to offer the community. 

Kevin Black, president of Creedence Energy Services, said he believes retaining strong individuals with CDLs and welding experience is important for his sector. “The oil and gas is very service oriented and so to find qualified individuals with CDLs, experience in the trade, welding, you name it, we have exhausted the pool here in North Dakota and we just don’t see those folks moving into the area.”

But other prairie_businesses, including the municipality, also are challenged by the limited pool of workers. “I don’t think the hiring challenge has gone down since the boom four years ago. We see it every day,” Black said. 

Steve Eberle, vice president of Ackerman-Estvold, said retaining a strong workforce is an “enormous challenge” and “a little bit of a vicious cycle.”

“During the boom we found it was actually easier to hire people while the rest of the country was in a recession,” he said. “Coincidentally, as the boom cooled down the rest of the country and economy picked up, and so even though prairie_business slowed down a little bit, it took care of the employment side by natural attrition. … What that left us with was people who were born and raised here or have really strong ties” to the area and not a lot of new transplants. 

But how does a city attract, let alone retain, a strong workforce? It’s a question to which many communities across the state and country are trying to find answers. Mayor Sipma likened it to a footrace. What makes the effort even more challenging is that there is no finish line in sight. 

“If you want to quantify that work as a marathon, it isn’t achieved overnight,” Sipma said in a follow-up interview with Prairie Business. “It’s not a 100-meter dash.”

And like a 100-meter dash that may wear the body, trying to come up with a plan to keep a viable workforce in town has taxed the minds of community partners. They’re not discouraged by the process, but it’s a constant run. 

Sipma said the community is now trying to set its own pace, “both in terms of what (we’re) capable of and what the community is willing to move the needle on in North Dakota.”

What moves the needle now is not necessarily what it was during the oil boom. 

“A lot of people talk about the boom as if it’s going to come back instead of talking about the new normal,” said John MacMartin, president of the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce. “There have been some very interesting dynamics here in town over the past nine years.”

Part of that new normal has to do with quality-of-life issues to attract and retain a skilled workforce.

“Yes, we have the oil industry, we have the (Air Force) base,” Black said, “but if we’re not getting the entrepreneurs and financial tools to be successful here in Minot we’re going to miss out on the next generation and the young folks who want to build a life here in North Dakota, and build a prairie_business.”  

The group mentioned a number of priorities for the community, including upgrading existing facilities, improving recreation opportunities, and adding more amenities. Residents spoke up late last year, mentioning some of the things they want from their community. 

A public perception survey conducted by Minot-based Odney in December showed that respondents said they were in favor of more amenities, such as new activities and entertainment options, more restaurants and additional places to shop.

The survey further revealed that infrastructure and health care are top priorities for residents, as are flood protection, new schools and community facilities. 

Of 411 respondents, 65.7% said they view the community as growing and improving, while 12.4% said they believe it is stagnant and 11.2% said they believe it is declining. 

Sipma said Minot is anything but declining, and efforts to revitalize downtown is proof of its resilience and the community’s effort to enhance the quality of life for its residents. 

“Let's dial back to like 2000, maybe even ’07 and ’08, and we're a town of about 32,000 people,” he said. “And then we were starting to see growth and impact, of course, because of the boom in 2010 and 2011. Then a quarter of our city got wiped out with a flood and yet we still managed to grow.”

Some of the things residents said they want are the same things the community is striving to improve, including a new medical campus that Trinity Health is building, which will include a 594,000-square-foot hospital and adjoining 196,000-square-foot medical office facility. The medical plaza will sit on 43 acres with an additional 32 acres that can be used for future growth, according to Trinity marketing director Karim Tripodina.  

“Everyone here (at the table) is trying to attract people, but we want to keep people here,” said Ron Merritt, executive director of the Minot Park District, explaining that quality-of-life attractions are a main driver of its efforts. “We’re looking at parks and trails, we’re also looking at major facilities” such as upgrading exhibits at the zoo.

The Roosevelt Park Zoo attracts 100,000 people in a typical season, he said, noting that it’s just one example of what the community is trying to do – upgrading its facilities and attractions. 

A third sheet of ice was added at the Maysa Arena and there’s talk of adding a fourth. An issue last fall caused the department to try something new: it replaced the ice sheet with turf so people could enjoy activities on grass during the cold months. 

“It’s sports-related but people love getting on that turf in winter,” Merritt said. “It’s a nice facility already and it has added a lot helping us get through the wintertime.”

Some of the things that have been enjoyed are baseball, lacrosse and soccer as well as a morning daycare, called “Tots on the Turf.” 

He said the parks and rec department is considering making a venue for it every year. 

Other things that have proved successful are community festivals, such as skating on the river and improving outdoor trails and recreational opportunities. 

And then there’s the revitalization of downtown, something the mayor calls a key component in the life of the community. 

 

Ongoing downtown revitalization

The revitalization of downtown Minot has been happening for the past couple of years, but it won’t be complete until a new city hall opens.

Sipma said that won’t likely happen until at least 2022, but it cannot come fast enough for him and his colleagues. The space the city occupies now is cramped to the point that closets have been turned into mini-offices and hallways are cluttered with makeshift desks. 

In contrast, the city is considering a 42,000-square-foot building downtown that would not only accommodate current needs but offer room to grow into the foreseeable future.  

Minot has its share of prairie_businesses common to other places, such as the chain stores and restaurants, but often what sets a community apart is its downtown. 

“It tends to be downtown that is your unique identity and gives a unique atmosphere and feel that then separates you from another community, creating, again, kind of that quality of life component,” he said. 

Other things happening downtown include the rehabilitation of its infrastructure, including new sidewalks, and prairie_business investment that happened even while construction was underway. 

“Sometimes change comes difficult and understanding why we need to revitalize our downtown and put an emphasis on a very unique aspect of our community,” he said. “And it's not just in the prairie_business climate, but also in the social climate – the younger generation that is up and coming. Whether they’re in their 20s or 30s, or even folks in their 40s, they like to have quality-of-life multipliers, things for their kids to do, and certainly things for themselves to do on the evenings or weekends. That can be anything from a wine bar downtown to a microbrew to indoor putt-putt golfing to just a lot of different things that essentially makes their life better in terms of opportunities.”

 

Branding the One Brand

As with any product, it helps to have a good marketing plan in place – and then use it, the mayor said. It’s something Minot leaders are trying to develop in the form of “One Brand.”

One Brand is a citywide marketing strategy and branding effort led by the Minot Convention and Visitors Bureau, in cooperation with Minot Area Chamber of Commerce and Minot Area Development Corp. The campaign, which is still being fine-tuned and hasn’t officially launched, aims to inform residents about events “downtown and around the city, provide resources to residents and prairie_businesses, including entrepreneurship support, and message to promote quality of life in the city,” according to the One Brand Technical Committee in January. “Successful branding is supposed to attract investment, tourism, and talent.” 

According to the mayor, the marketing plan would align with the city’s strategic plan but also differ from it in that it would focus on target audiences and methods for spreading the message.

Though the full campaign has not yet been launched, current slogans already found on area websites seem to be joining forces under that umbrella: “Destination Downtown Minot,” “Welcome to the Heart of Minot,” “Welcome to the ‘Magic City’ of Minot, North Dakota,” “Partners in Progress,” “Relax and Enjoy Minot. We’re Ready for You,” and “‘Discover the Magic’ of our hospitable city.” 

Sipma said the community hasn’t fully identified what its “one brand” is just yet, but he hopes to have the preliminaires on that within the next few months, get feedback from partners, and “roll it out.” 

Still, the mayor knows essentially what its mission will entail.

“One Brand essentially is who we are as a community and where we are going as a community,” Sipma said. “What is our message to the outside world? I guess you could say the old brand was ‘Why Not Minot’ for a long time. Now, of course, we are a much different community than we were 10 years ago, 20 years ago. We're ever growing and getting a younger community that has a substantial amount to offer.”

Stripped to its bare bones, he said: "I think it's just rediscovering the magic in the old Magic City.” 

_____

Prairie Business Editor Andrew Weeks may be reached at aweeks@grandforksherald.com or 701-780-1276. Also find him on Twitter @PB_AndrewWeeks.