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Growing Small Towns…Thriving North Dakota

May 15, 2023

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Co-Written by: Rebecca Undem, Growing Small Towns 

Rebecca Undem has one mission: to help small towns be places people love to call home.

A rural North Dakotan herself, she started Growing Small Towns to do just that.

Throughout this journey, Rebecca has gained so many valuable insights into what these hidden gems do for our families, communities, and our local and state economies. We sat down with her to hear about a few of them and learn more about how rural communities play an integral role in making ND better.

Small towns are a place for possibility now more than ever.

It has always been important for me to feel fulfilled, career-wise, and in high school, I had no idea how I was going to do that in my hometown. Technology, the way we work, and even COVID-19 has completely opened the realm of possibilities that exist in rural North Dakota. Because of this shift, the story we get to tell our kids about our community is completely different than the one I was told, and there are so many things they can accomplish and achieve, right from rural ND.

Rural communities help fuel the economy of larger cities.

I don’t think a lot of larger communities realize the importance that small towns have on their local economies. Rural communities travel to them for groceries and shopping. They get their tires changed, visit the doctor, or plan fun weekend getaways at their urban neighbors’. There needs to be more partnership and collaboration in city leadership, economic developers, and city planners that focuses on how we can all work together. We need to change the narrative and talk about why we need each other.

People want to see what is happening and what exists in rural communities.

We assume that people aren’t interested in visiting rural communities, but Growing Small Towns has proven otherwise. I’ve started hosting an annual bus tour where we invite business professionals from Fargo to visit our community, see our space, and get a small taste of what makes Oakes a great place to live. And they love it! People will never know what these small towns have to offer if residents don’t invite them into it.

Rural communities model what it looks like to truly take care of one another.

Larger cities often have a hard time mimicking the “community feel” that small towns bring simply because of size, but it’s because they are starting too broad. Start with a neighborhood. What would it look like if our neighborhoods in our communities looked out for each other? Rallied around each other? Brought people together in a meaningful way?

Rural communities can reach new heights by learning from their urban neighbors.

One of the biggest challenges to growth in smaller towns is that they tend to be very insular and do not leave their community as much. There is something about traveling and experiencing new places (big or small, near or far) that opens our minds to new ideas and new possibilities. That’s something small towns can learn from their urban friends: what it looks like to learn from people who look different, sound different, and think differently…and how these out-of-the-box, nontraditional ways can grow their communities.

Neighboring rural communities are not competitors.

It is common for small towns to have a “they win, we lose / we win, they lose” mentality, but we need to start seeing each other as assets to one another. The way you view and talk about your neighboring towns affects how others will experience the entire region. It’s one of the hardest things to get behind because everyone wants to win, but we can’t thrive without switching that mindset.

The way we talk about ourselves and our communities matters.

We had a rural sociologist by the name of Ben Winchester on our Growing Small Towns podcast that talked about the importance of telling a better story of who we are as rural America. He reminded our listeners that “nobody is going to move to your small town because they feel sorry for you.” It can be easy to get swept up in the nostalgia of what used to be in some of these rural communities, and that sadness is very real, but the way we talk about it matters. We are messengers and ambassadors for our communities. We have to model a more positive voice that carries the narrative for our communities.

Growing Small Towns is a non-profit that exists to support new or existing businesses, connect art and culture, and help individuals and professionals develop…all in rural communities across ND.

To learn more about the organization and the services they offer, visit their website.