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HTC project promoting area engagement

DICKINSON - Described as a "come back/give back approach for capacity building in rural communities," the HomeTown Competitiveness project is working to engage and retain community members.

"It's a capacity building project that works with communities to build and sustain capacity within their communities," said Lexi Sebastian, former project coordinator. "The project that the Strom Center is piloting, works with seven rural communities in western North Dakota."

Current communities in the HTC project include Bowman, Dickinson, Hettinger, Killdeer, Williston, and the communities within the Fort Berthold Reservation and the Medora environs.

"In each community, everyone works at their own pace, but they are able to seek out resources, technical assistance, tools and assessment type of things in order to help build themselves," Sebastian said.

Sebastian stresses the fact that HTC is not a seed money project, and says monies requested and used are for resources only.

Sebastian says the project is closely tied with economic development.

"A lot of people are looking at jobs and houses and developing their roads," Sebastian said. "These are some of the big issues we are facing here, and this is a comprehensive strategy for that."

The project was a result of Dickinson State University symposiums on the depopulation of the area.

"The results were posted on a Web site, and the Bush Foundation found those results and wanted to help," Sebastian said. "So they approached Dickinson State and it progressed from there."

Begun in May 2007, the project had an official kick-off in October 2007.

Supporting the HTC project is The Strom Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, along with the Bush Foundation of Minnesota. The project is also supported by Dickinson State University and other area partners, according to the Strom Center Web site.

HTC focuses on four pillars: mobilize local leaders and building community civic capacity, energize local entrepreneurs  to build a stronger economy, capture wealth transfer to raise development dollars and attracting young people to strengthen community demographics technical skills to assist in driving their communities economic and community growth.

"Each pillar is headed by a committee and they decide what they want to do," Sebastian said. "Some communities might just focus on one pillar."

Sebastian says the youth pillar will be useful due to a mass amount of youth migration.

"Integrating that into showing them opportunities and quality of place that we do have here is important," Sebastian said. "We just want to strengthen that and encourage them to stay versus them leaving and hoping they find better opportunities."

Hettinger is one example of how communities are using the resources and funds through the project.

The Hettinger HTC project has developed their youth pillar by holding outdoor movie nights as well as a welcoming committee for new residents.

"We just started our Hettinger hospitality project up again," said Stacy Sundgren, of the Hettinger HTC project. "We're trying to put youth on every pillar."

Sundgren says the leadership pillar is beginning to take shape.

"We are helping to find people to run for the open positions during elections and encouraging those that are on to stay as incumbents," Sundgren said. "We also were trying to get more kids involved on boards, and we did put a student on the development corporation as a voting member on the board. We want the kids to feel like they have ownership of the community like the adults."

Sundgren says getting a handle on the skilled trades in the area is also something the leadership pillar is looking in to.

"We know that some of our skilled trades like plumbers and carpenters and electricians are getting close to retirement age or there is only one where there should be two or three," Sundgren said. "We're going to do an inventory on who is out there and what their plans are for their business and if they have an exit plan in place."

Sundgren says she hopes the project will benefit everyone.

"We're hoping that it's a full-circle type program that people help us and we are more than willing to help them."

The project will continue until March 2010, at which point the success of the program will be evaluated.

"At that point we will determine whether or not we will be submitting a request to Bush for additional funds," said Jeanne MacDonald, director of the Strom Center. "At that point we will decide whether to continue in the communities we are in or expanding into other communities, I think it's too early to tell."