More than 230 of North Dakota’s governmental leaders, city officials and commissioners convened in Bismarck Monday for the Southwest Night with the Legislators to discuss initiatives driving the Western Edge.

Hosted by the Dickinson Chamber of Commerce Governmental Relations Committee (DCCGRC), the Southwest Night with the Legislators was hosted at the Ramkota Hotel & Conference Center and witnessed approximately 300 guests in attendance.

Among some of the biggest names at the event, Gov. Doug Burgum addressed the gathering with an opening speech in which he detailed the condition of the state and it's steady decline from one of the worst in the nation to one of the lowest in the country for COVID-19 positivity rates.

… We’ve always been blessed. We’re in great shape now and not only from the standpoint of the pandemic, but also economically,” Burgum said. “We’re one of the few states where our budget is ahead and now we’ve got the legislature back in session guiding us toward the future.”

Burgum predicted that the next 10 years are going to be “a golden age in advancement,” and North Dakota’s economy will be an example for other states to emulate as they struggle with debt.

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“... I also hope through all of this that we can make sure as we’re going through this now that we spend a majority of time looking forward, not looking back. Because we’re in a position where few states can look to the future .... with confidence and we can look to the future with optimism and we can look to the future understanding that we, as North Dakotans, will do as we’ve always done. We not only get through the storm, but we shovel out and we come out stronger than ever. We have an opportunity to do some amazing things in this incredible state of ours,” Burgum said.

Since 1985, the DCCGRC has been hosting the annual event with each legislative session and Executive Director Christina Jorgensen noted that it’s an incredible collaborative event.

“Southwest Night with the Legislators event has been an opportunity for residents, community leaders, business owners, employees (and) folks who really care about what’s going on in the western side of the state to come together and share our stories with our state legislators,” Jorgensen said. “... For them to get involved and really have one-on-one conversations with some of our legislators, it’s really important for city to county to state level to have great communication and build those relationships.”

The event featured education representatives including Dickinson State University and the Southwest CTE Task Force. Tourism officials and eight county commissioners from southwest North Dakota gathered to address their ideas, including Dickinson City Commissioner John Odermann.

“This is what this event is all about — building those relationships and giving those legislators an opportunity to put a human face to the names they might see on a piece of paper, or bring a more human element to those bills you see on the floor… I really like to look at the legislative session from the framework that these guys are planting trees and they might never see the fruits of their labor,” Odermann said, explaining, “It might be 20 sessions down the road where those trees that they planted (will) finally flower and bear fruit.”

Representing Vision West ND and DLN Consulting Inc., Deb Nelson is a veteran of the Southwest Night with the Legislators and looks forward to forming stronger relationships with those in power who make a difference on the Western Edge.

“It’s things like the Southwest CTE Academy, which we need funding for. (It’s) a workforce issue. it is an education issue, it’s a population issue — keeping kids in western North Dakota,” Nelson said. “We know that when students leave western North Dakota to go get a technical degree from let’s say Wahpeton, they don’t come back. They go that way. So we need to have something that’s going to keep them in the west and this academy is important for that.”

This year’s Southwest Night with the Legislators featured entertainment from Clay Jenkinson, who impersonated President Theodore Roosevelt in a roast of politicians from the top to the bottom.

Speaking with The Press, Dickinson Republican Rep. Mike Lefor, of District 37, said he looks forward to the camaraderie of the event every year.

“I think it’s unique because we put a spotlight on southwest North Dakota and all the things we’re trying to accomplish and kind of give an update as to what’s going on in our part of the world,” Lefor said. “I think legislators really enjoy this night because it’s different… This is probably going to be the biggest event of the session, because of the pandemic and people haven’t been getting out at all. It’s informative, it’s educational and it is entertaining.”