Opportunity, community bring back ND nativeFINLEY — Rick Karboviak hated to leave his native North Dakota when he struck out for Ohio with dollar signs in his eyes.
By: By Patrick Springer, Forum News Service
FINLEY — Rick Karboviak hated to leave his native North Dakota when he struck out for Ohio with dollar signs in his eyes.
It was seven years ago, when he was managing an athletic club in Cooperstown. Two years earlier, in 2002, he was elected mayor at the age of 25, possibly that town’s youngest.
Back then he saw trouble on the horizon for young professionals like himself who were trying to establish themselves in careers in North Dakota.
After all, the state had endured seven decades of rural population decline and the outmigration of young people in search of jobs and opportunities elsewhere.
In Cooperstown, then a town of 1,100, Karboviak estimated there were 30 or 40 residents in their 20s. One out of three residents was a senior — a gray town getting grayer.
Karboviak was one of the more outspoken members of the “Saving North Dakota” round table that gathered in 2002 to offer suggestions to improve career opportunities for young people.
He bemoaned what he saw as a state culture that was risk averse and complacent. He wanted to help change those attitudes.
Then, in 2004, Karboviak decided to move to the Columbus, Ohio, area for an annual salary of $30,000 working as a sports and personal fitness trainer.
In Cooperstown, he was earning $19,000 at the athletic club, working as a personal trainer during the summer and coaching high school cross country.
But life has a way of throwing curveballs.
In 2007, Karboviak returned to Finley, his hometown, 19 miles east of Cooperstown.
“It just wasn’t working out for me financially,” he said. Personal fitness clients, when faced with spiking gas prices and other costs, dropped.
Karboviak, now 35, also found he never felt a sense of community in a sprawling metro area of 1.5 million, and grew to hate the traffic.
Before returning to Finley, he worked for a year or so in Thief River Falls, Minn., at a fitness center associated with the hospital.
But that job ended, and he moved home to regroup, taking a job at an auto dealership detailing cars and trucks —lots of farmers, flush with cash, customizing a new set of wheels.
When he got back, he was surprised to see long lines of semis waiting to deliver grain at the elevator in his home town, sometimes backed up on the highway, a sight he never saw while growing up.
Later Karboviak got a job as a coach and custodian at Finley-Sharon Public School in town.
“I’m making more being a custodian and a coach than I ever made as a fitness trainer,” he said.
Still, the problems facing many rural areas in North Dakota have not gone away. To compete in sports, Finley-Sharon schools combine with Hope and Page to field teams.
“There’s fewer kids to draw from,” Karboviak said, adding that Finley-Sharon’s enrollment is about 125. “That’s still a big concern.”
Finley’s population, typical of so many farming communities, has declined in recent years, with an estimated population last year of 439, compared to 510 in 2000.
Last summer, the café in town closed, but the grocery store is still open.
“There’s a lot less business in town,” Karboviak said.
The Finley city auditorium, no longer in use, has been converted into a self-service community fitness center, thanks to Karboviak and a few others.
“In some ways it’s nice to be back,” he said. Family is close by, and he’s still working in his chosen field, with a bit of improvisation.
Last spring, when he looked into opportunities in North Dakota’s booming Oil Patch, he flirted with moving to a fitness center in Dickinson. The pay was good, but he couldn’t find affordable housing.
“If you can’t find a place to live, how are you going to make it?” he asked. Still, that’s much better than the way it was back in 2002.
“It just didn’t seem like there was too much to look forward to,” he said. “I think the state is a lot better off.”