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Mountrail County, North Dakota—
Shaping a Bright Future

—Ted Natt, Community Success Journalist

The birthplace of the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota is Mountrail County, where the speed and intensity of growth has almost doubled the county’s population in less than five years and created a myriad of challenges. “The growth has been phenomenal. You need to see it to believe it,” says Don Longmuir, the county’s planner, zoning administrator and disaster emergency services coordinator.

Longmuir compares the unprecedented growth to the Gold Rush days in California in 1849. “We probably have 1,200 producing oil wells. We’ll be over 6,000 within the next five years,” he says. “Where we were once producing less than 100 barrels of oil a day overall, we now have wells that will produce 1,000 to 2,000 barrels a day for the next seven years. “And the oil companies don’t shut down. They work 24/7.”

The county’s population was 8,000 before the boom, but 7,000 new residents have relocated there since then.
As a result, housing and other prices are inflated, the county’s infrastructure is being taxed, the once-declining school population is burgeoning and the volunteer base is shrinking, among other issues. “We’re making adjustments on a daily basis, but we needed to take a deep breath and look at the future,” Longmuir says. “What happens 20 years from now when the boom goes bust?”

Building Communities, an economic development strategic planning firm, is helping Mountrail County answer that question by developing a plan that will shape the growth in a way that benefits those who live there now and future generations. “Our goal is to have a sustaining community and Building Communities is helping us focus on that,” Longmuir says. “They have helped us look at the big picture so we don’t end up with unintended consequences.”
Building Communities President Brian Cole believes that the county and its communities – Stanley, New Town, Parshall and Plaza – already have a great foundation in the Roughrider heritage that built North Dakota and sustained the state through the Great Depression.

“The people of Mountrail County not only desire to stick it out, they want to build a place they can proudly call home,” Cole says. “They want communities that are positive, planned and progressive. So, our planning process was all about making wise choices today that will positively affect their life tomorrow.” One of the main outcomes of the planning process was for Mountrail County to hire an economic developer to implement the plan, and the parameters of the search are currently being discussed.

“An economic developer will not only bring new resources into Mountrail County, that person will support the existing and emerging businesses in the county,” Cole says. “It was refreshing and rewarding to work with county leaders and concerned citizens to identify the best strategies to move the county forward.” Longmuir says Building Communities helped “open everyone’s eyes” to all of the issues that impact the county, especially its shortcomings. “We’re being made more aware of things to look out for,” he says, “so we’re becoming proactive now rather than being reactive.”

The communities in Mountrail County have largely worked independently, except for two decades ago when the county’s Job Development Authority was created. “Everyone was losing population, so we came together to try and retain our residents by trying to create new job opportunities,” Longmuir says. “We hope to mobilize our people in a similar fashion this time in order to manage the growth that we are seeing.”

Take education, for example. Enrollments were declining prior to the oil boom, but now classrooms are overflowing and English as a second language is being taught to Hispanic students, a population that didn’t exist before the boom. “We’ve gone from one extreme to another,” Longmuir says. Ambulance runs have tripled from 100 a year to 300, forcing the county to contract with paramedics. “We had to go that route because our volunteer EMS personnel also have full-time jobs and they were missing too much work,” Longmuir says.

Mountrail County is focusing on value-added agriculture as a key economic development strategy because its citizens do not want to lose the agricultural roots planted by their forefathers. “We don’t want to forget our past, but we needed help looking beyond the horizon,” Longmuir says. “How can we control the growth, yet still grow in an orderly manner? Building Communities has helped us answer that question.”

Cole says it was crucial for everyone involved in the planning process to recognize that while the years immediately ahead hold great promise for economic growth in Mountrail County, preserving the county’s high quality of life should not be lost along the way. “A truly successful community is comprised of leaders and citizens who put the advancement of the entire community – not just its individual projects – first,” Cole says. “Mountrail County is well on its way to achieving that status, and every strategy they have selected has quality-of-life enhancing benefits. “I see nothing but a bright future for Mountrail County.”


©2017 Building Communities, Inc.