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Belfield presses on: Belfield considers its projects, situation as it moves forward following positive 2015

BELFIELD -- Despite some challenges brought on by a downturn in the surrounding oil industry, Belfield auditor Natalie Muruato said the city is holding on.

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Belfield City Auditor Natalie Muruato stands Thursday outside the Belfield Theatre, which she is campaigning to save after it closed a few years ago. (Andrew Wernette/The Dickinson Press)

BELFIELD - Despite some challenges brought on by a downturn in the surrounding oil industry, Belfield auditor Natalie Muruato said the city is holding on.

Like other cities in North Dakota, Muruato said the state asked Belfield to cut back on expenses as funding shrank with oil revenue.

“We anticipated our budget issues early on, so we were able finish 2015 in the black, which we were really excited about,” she said.

Muruato said many of the city’s major projects are near completion. This includes its widespread street improvement project, which replaced many of the town’s crumbling streets last year.

A few streets are left to be paved in the spring, she said.

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Elsewhere, Muruato said a new sewage lagoon project has been finished, and a second water tower is now erected. The city is also anticipating a system to come into operation next month where residents can make city payments online.

One visible sign of the slowdown, however, is the number of properties that are up for rent, Muruato said.

She also described the city experiencing a “medium outflux of people” due to oil jobs leaving the area.

Restoring the Belfield Theatre

Muruato said a somewhat personal project of hers that has grown into a city project is the revival of the Belfield Theatre, which has been closed for some time.

Though having been a vision of hers in the past, Muruato said opening the theatre for business received a new impetus recently when she attended North Dakota State University’s

Rural Leadership North Dakota program, which the city sponsored. There, everyone is challenged to choose and head a community revitalization project.

Since then, Muruato said she’s begun a new campaign to save the theatre, for which the city has already collected donations.

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She said there are plans for the city to lease the building at a reduced cost to the city’s park board, under which she said it will be easier to apply for non-city grants due to the board’s nonprofit status.

A theatre board has already been established to run beneath the park board, the former of which will oversee a manager for the business.

Muruato said the city will pay for the utilities of the theatre.

“The city still wants to do their part,” she said.

The project would be completed in phases, with the first one consisting of replacing the current screen, along with adding new digital film and sound equipment. The next phase would be replacing the seating, and eventually the concessions stand would be replaced.

“I’m hoping it will provide, like, three to five part-time jobs, which will also include youth employment, which is really lacking in Belfield because it’s such an oil-based town,” Muruato said.

The theatre is a landmark for the town, she said. Already, the effort to revive it has received a great deal of support.

If all goes to plan, she said the theatre should open its doors this year.

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Muruato said she’s heard of many small communities coming together to save their theatres when they become threatened, and she hopes that Belfield does the same.

“If we can revive this theater, than maybe we can revive the community,” she said.

Looking at the past

Clarence Thompson is known by some in Belfield as the town’s unofficial historian.

A retired hardware store owner at 85 years old, Thompson, whom locals also call “Sunny,” has lived in Belfield all his life. He resides in the building that held his shop on Main Street, the storefront of which he’s transformed into a sizeable collection of antiques collected from the town.

If anyone has seen both the highs and the lows of the city over the years, it’s him.

“We’re kind of at a low tide right now, I think,” Thompson said.

He said a noticeable amount of people have moved out of town.

“Hopefully it’s going to get better for people,” he said.

Thompson said he didn’t think locals “noticed as much” during the oil bust in the mid-1980s as they do with this one. These days, he characterized the mindsets of people living in the area as having to think twice in making decisions so as not to fall into a hard situation.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of people that would move into Belfield (for the long term) for various reasons,” he said, listing one as the lack of a grocery store in town.

According to Thompson’s recollection, there was a time when the city had six grocery stores. There also were times when there were 10 gas stations and five grain elevators in the area, he said.

“But now we’ve got some nice streets,” he said with a chuckle, adding that there were many more houses as well.

That said, Thompson doesn’t see the town itself falling emptying too much in the future.

“It’ll change as everything else changes, but I don’t think it’s going to leave anytime soon,” he said.

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