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Southwest Spotlight: James Kramer helps to improve Dickinson's 'quality of life'

Press Photo by Bryan Horwath Dickinson Parks and Recreation Department director James Kramer peers over a railing from the upper level of the West River Community Center on Thursday.

In the early 1980s, then-Dickinson Parks and Recreation director Doug Jaeger asked an enthusiastic 12-year-old boy to keep score at adult league softball games.

Little did Jaeger know, that youngster would grow up to eventually take his place.

“I remember it well,” said James Kramer, who has been in Jaeger’s former position for the past 13 years. “Doug asked me to keep score for softball tournaments at $2 per game. Honestly, I think I’ve worked here in some way, shape or form ever since.”

Coming off the oil boom of the late 1970s, few predicted Dickinson would one day become one of the fastest-growing micropolitan cities in the United States because of yet another oil boom driven by the explosion in exploration of the Bakken and Three Forks oil shale formations in western North Dakota and eastern Montana.

Sitting in his office at the West River Community Center late Thursday afternoon, all Kramer had to do was look out his window to see $23 million worth of changes being made to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department because of that growth.

In 2014, the department expects to complete additions to the popular community center, finish adding a second ice arena to the Dickinson Recreation Center and get an outdoor water park up and running.

A graduate of Dickinson High School and Dickinson State University, Kramer became a full-time employee of Dickinson Parks and Recreation in 1991. He had a two-year stint with the Williston Parks and Recreation Department before ascending to Dickinson’s director job in late 2000.

Since Kramer’s first day with a scorebook all those years ago, Dickinson and its recreation department have witnessed a lot of changes, most notably the 2004 completion of the West River Community Center, which has become one of the city’s landmarks.

“It’s a completely different park district today than it was back then,” Kramer said. “I still remember our budget (in 2000) was $1.2 million and we had 12 full-time employees. Now, our budget is about $5.2 million and we have 26 full-time employees. I think the biggest thing that has changed over time is the public’s expectations of parks and recreation services are completely different.”

Improving ‘quality of life’

Often tied to the “quality of life” offered in a city or area, Kramer said people today look for facilities and opportunities within the recreation and fitness realm to enhance the lifestyle they choose to live.

“The quality-of-life factor is so much higher of a priority,” Kramer said. “People move now and take jobs because of the quality of life in communities and that’s what we strive to do — create a quality of place and quality of life for the people that live here. Things like parks and recreation and education, those are huge deciding factors today when people think of places to relocate.”

The $23 million facelift features expansions to the community center with four basketball courts, and bigger weight training and cardio areas. The addition of a second sheet of ice at the soon-to-be-renamed West River Ice Arena promises to remedy several issues in the area of hockey and recreational skating. The water park will be Dickinson’s first outdoor pool facility since the closing of several parks department-run pools last decade.

“We obviously have a bigger volume of people participating in our programs and visiting our facilities,” Kramer said. “But also, the people coming are from different areas of the country where there are different types of activities they do for recreation. We’ve never had adult soccer here. But we now have a day and time where people get together out at our soccer fields and have pickup adult soccer games. Years ago, we never would have fathomed that.”

Steadily, more people have been walking through the West River Community Center’s doors in recent years. Kramer said nearly 1,000 people per day visit the facility.

Enjoyable challenges

Kramer said his job is both challenging and enjoyable.

“I like the people aspect of the job,” Kramer said. “I really like working for the people of this area and for the kids. I love seeing the facial expression on kids, whether we’re talking about a special event like a Halloween party or a basketball tournament. I think, not just athletics, but recreational sports are a great developer of kids — not just athletically, but also socially.”

While Kramer said he believes the department has “made good decisions lately,” he added that the department’s past leadership put it in a position to grow and be successful in today’s western North Dakota social climate.

“Historically, Dickinson Parks and Recreation is in a very good position to move forward and address the needs of the community,” Kramer said. “I really think that’s because there has been some great leadership here. From Park Board members to a staff of great people who are passionate about recreation, to previous directors like Dale McCamish and Doug Jaeger, there have been people who have spent a lot of time doing what I’m doing now.”

Now the sports facilities director for the Rochester (Minn.) Parks and Recreation Department, McCamish supervised Kramer while he was director in Dickinson and said the district is in good hands with Kramer.

“I had a lot of good times working with James,” McCamish said. “I’d like to think of myself as somewhat of a mentor to James. I’d certainly be proud to say that I was one of his mentors. I was thrilled when James got the job when I left because I think he really deserved it and I knew he would do a good job. James is a very good guy and liked by many people.”

A busy man

A member of the DSU tennis team during his time at the school, Kramer said he still enjoys hitting the ball around and keeps even busier as the head coach of Dickinson High School’s boys and girls tennis teams. Not to mention a busy home life that includes his wife, Tammy, and son, Benson, a sophomore at Trinity High School. The Kramers’ daughter, Abby, attends North Dakota State University.

In addition to all that, Kramer was recently appointed by Gov. Jack Dalrymple to a new task force on property tax reform, which had its first meeting in Bismarck earlier this month. He was appointed as a representative of the North Dakota Recreation and Park Association.

“It was an absolute surprise,” Kramer said. “The governor called the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and asked if I’d be interested to serve on the task force. I’m excited about it. It’s going to be a great challenge and great opportunity to dig into something that has never been done at this scale before. Property taxes right now are probably the most politically charged topic in North Dakota. How do we make that issue more efficient and understanding to the average citizen? That’s going to be the biggest challenge.”

Could his appointment to the task force kick-start Kramer’s own political career?

“I’ve thought about it,” Kramer said. “I envision myself always working in the public arena. If that’s in a public office or a governmental office like this, I envision that’s where I’m going to be. I’ll always keep that option available. The politics side of things may not be my most favorite side, but I really enjoy serving the public and helping to better our community. We want to be that community that people move to and want to stay forever.”

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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