Then and Now in North Dakota

By Tessa Sandstrom | October 04, 2013

“What does North Dakota even have?  What will North Dakota ever have?!”

It was a question my friend, Mike, from Arizona once asked me while laughing. It is a question that many North Dakotans have been asked by out-of-staters, and if they were like me, they usually went on the defensive trying to overcome a slight inferiority complex that these kinds of questions sometimes caused. Yet, it didn’t change the fact that I have always loved this state and felt that many people were overlooking all that it had to offer. After graduating from college, much of my career focused on trying to improve the public perception that people both here and out of state may have of North Dakota.     

Today, that perception is changing. We have seen a tremendous turnaround since as recently as 2008. At that time, the issues most of our state and local leaders still faced, despite a growing economy, were outmigration, the “brain drain” of our young people, and the deterioration of the small, rural communities where so many of us had grown up. That year, I and many other North Dakotans, including then-Gov. John Hoeven, were outraged when the National Geographic did a story that portrayed rural (and more specifically western) North Dakota as a dying place with few young people and even less hope.

One of the communities National Geographic visited was Epping, where one individual remarked that a baby being born in the community was a rare cause for joy, since it was something that likely had not happened in the community for at least 20 years. The article went on to describe the imminent death of our great state saying, “That’s the rub in rural North Dakota, a sense of things ebbing, of churches being abandoned, schools shutting down, towns becoming ruins.”

But that was then and this is now. In July, ground was broken on a housing development in Epping that will include 22 twin-family homes, 43 single-family homes and two mobile park sites. Schools in Crosby, Powers Lake, Watford City and Ray are filling up and are undergoing or considering expansions. Towns that were once in decline are some of the fastest growing communities in the nation. Certainly this kind of rapid growth presents challenges, especially for communities that were used to decline, but all would agree these are good challenges to have.

Thanks to a booming agriculture sector, growing manufacturing, technology and research sectors, and a thriving oil industry, North Dakota has also become an economic powerhouse, ascending from being “a large, blank spot in the nation’s mind” to being in the national and international spotlight for bucking the nation’s negative employment and economic trends. Today, North Dakota has many bragging rights, including being named the second best state for business by Forbes, having the lowest unemployment in the nation, being the second largest oil producing state in the nation, and even ranking as the best state in the nation for young people—a recognition that would have been implausible just a mere five years ago.

The importance oil and gas development has played in North Dakota’s economic health is undeniable, and I take great pride in being a part of an industry that has helped with the revitalization of so many small communities in western North Dakota. In my hometown of New Town, the development of oil and gas has allowed many of my high school classmates to start their own businesses, and others have great jobs and careers and are able to stay close to family and take advantage of the outdoor opportunities we all grew up enjoying.

Needless to say, I no longer have that inferiority complex when asked where I’m from, but rather am proud to announce I’m from a state that is reducing our nation’s dependence on foreign oil and is giving individuals from across the nation a second chance through the tens of thousands of jobs available today.

And often, I can’t help but look back at Mike’s question and think, what does North Dakota have? Well, I hate to gloat, but…


Author: Tessa Sandstrom
Communications Manager,
North Dakota Petroleum Council