Resilient region: Southwestern North Dakota mayors weigh in on 2020, look ahead at 2021's uphill climb

The Western Edge experienced economic drawbacks in 2020 that redefined southwestern North Dakota towns. Five southwestern mayors detail each of their cities struggles from last year and list various goals they hope to achieve moving forward.

Driving off of Interstate Highway 94, the Dickinson Western Edge sign welcomes travelers. (Dickinson Press File Photo)

Across southwestern North Dakota, cities from Dickinson to Watford City saw firsthand the effects of 2020’s striking economic blows. Silhouettes of pumpjacks in the evening skies remained still for months — showcasing the price war and a collapsing demand for oil from the Bakken Formation. Each city dealt with its own repercussions whether it was implementing a mask mandate or cutting back hours to part-time. Though the coronavirus pandemic darkened the world, southwestern North Dakotans remained resilient and pushed through the storm.


With a growing agriculture, energy and manufacturing community, Dickinson is home to many features that draws people into the Western Edge. Mayor Scott Decker weighed in on how the Dickinson community prevailed through 2020.

“I think it’s just that resiliency and willingness to buckle down for a short time and put up with some of the parameters and recommendations that were provided by either the CDC or the federal government. And we’re a pretty hardy bunch out here so we have weathered a lot of storms and I give a lot of credit to the individuals out here because of their resilience,” Decker said.

The downturn in oil consequently dwindled travel, Decker noted. Demand for oil reduced significantly which impacted some of the larger providers in the oilfield industry. Along with the coronavirus pandemic, Decker said the Western Edge suffered from the low percentage of participation in the census, which dictates redistricting in western North Dakota and representation in the Legislature.


Dickinson City Hall shut down for one day, and temporarily changed its protocols to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines such as having some employees work from home and others rotating different shifts to limit the amount of people in one setting, Decker said.

“It had a lot of impact on a day-to-day operation, but we weathered the storm and came through it. (For) the families and individuals that were directly affected by COVID-19 either in sickness or they lost their jobs, I feel horrible for them. But our situation here I think was a lot better than some of the larger cities in other parts of the United States,” Decker said.

Moving forward with 2021, Decker hopes to continue revamping the Downtown Square and awaits for the City of Dickinson to move into its new City Hall. Other goals Decker has on his list include building relationships with the school district, Dickinson State University and manufacturers with the Southwest Career and Technical Education Academy; possibly developing a training site for fire and police services as well as including Dickinson’s Public Works Department with that project idea.

Dickinson’s innovation and its ability to work together to push through storms such as the coronavirus pandemic is what makes the city outstanding, Decker added.


In the city of Killdeer, Mayor Chuck Muscha remarked how people remained optimistic during 2020.

“I would like to thank the community and the people in Dunn County for their reactions to the pandemic and following the guidelines as best as possible, making it so we can get through this thing safely and I thought everyone did a wonderful job,” Muscha said.

Killdeer experienced some shut down of its facilities including the Aquatics and Wellness Center, and City Hall was by appointment only for a period of time.


Currently, Mushca’s main priority for 2021 is the construction of the new high school, which will require looking at road design and deciding whether water and sewer lines need to be replaced as well as adding a sidewalk along the road to the new school.

With a dry winter, Muscha also fears for drought conditions this year.

“My biggest concern is how dry it is right now in western North Dakota. We need some rain this spring. Our ranchers, farmers, everything is going to be drastically affected there. What I see is there’s no snow ...we need some moisture,” he added.


Driving over to the Badlands of North Dakota, Medora is a tourist haven that attracts thousands upon thousands each year. But the coronavirus pandemic’s traveling halt saw a distinct drop in traffic in Medora, Mayor Todd Corneil said.

“The biggest challenge was ensuring the health, safety and the well being of Medora’s residents and the visitors who came to Medora,” Corneil said.

To adhere to the new norm of social distancing and wearing masks, the Medora City Council worked together with North Dakota health officials and followed executive orders from Gov. Doug Burgum’s office, Corneil noted.

Though Medora received a blow to tourism, the number of positive COVID-19 cases remained low throughout 2020, Corneil said, adding that the City of Medora will continue following recommendations as provided by health officials.


Corneil hopes to continue his work as mayor to stop the spread of the coronavirus and work on the city’s aging infrastructure.


For New England Mayor Marty Opdahl, the change of communication was one of the biggest obstacles to get through. Prior to virtual Zoom video conferencing, city meetings were in person. Now masks remain a barrier at meetings.

However, Opdahl was pleased to finalize the 5-year infrastructure project that entailed replacing all of New England’s water mains, sewer lines, the water tower as well as redoing all of the streets.

“Wrapping that up this year was just a really, really good thing,” he said.

Looking ahead, Opdahl would like to finish the chip sealing for all of the redone streets in New England as well as gathering more community input for a walking path that is projected for 2023.

“New England is a fantastic place to live and I’m really proud of the town and what we’ve managed to accomplish. We’ve got the complete infrastructure done in New England, there’s a brand new school addition going on up there and New England is starting to look pretty good,” he added.


As one of the most transformed towns due to the Bakken oil development, Watford City encountered a notable strike in 2020. Mayor Philip Riely detailed the setback as a major hit to the city’s economy.

“Our biggest struggle was our loss of gross production tax. When the pandemic hit and everybody had to stay home, we had a surplus of oil so the price bottomed out and gross production tax just about went into hibernation,” Riely said. “Operators were shutting in wells, because it was no longer profitable to produce oil so if you’re not making oil, you’re not making tax dollars.”

Riely noted that the city had to cancel some of its projects in 2020 such as fixing some of the roads. Some city positions were reduced to part-time. Employees that worked with the oilfield took more of a hit than others, he added.

“We did have to roll back the raises and sure, that caused a little bit of heartburn but I don’t know if there was an employee out there that didn’t understand why we were doing it…” Riely said. “It’s interesting now to sit back and look at (how) North Dakota is doing so good with their numbers (and) how Watford City is doing so good with keeping our numbers low. We’re back to like $1.2 million for oil, our price of oil is up. It’s kind of funny to look back now and really evaluate how we did it… Even as a Monday morning quarterback, I’m really happy with the way we did things, how we worked together as a team.”

With a new rising year, Riely is hopeful to accomplish projects as well as reprioritizing what’s most important for Watford City. A big goal for Reily is to work on replacing the city’s aging infrastructure.

Jackie Jahfetson is a former reporter for The Dickinson Press.
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