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GRAND FORKS -- Before he was lieutenant governor, Brent Sanford was mayor of Watford City. The town currently stands at just over 6,500 people, with 264.4 percent population growth since 2010 according to the U.S. Census.

In his keynote speech at the University of North Dakota’s two-day workshop “Smart, Local, Resilient: Enabling our Communities through Research Partnerships,” Sanford talked about the importance of fostering growth in rural communities. When he moved back to Watford City in 2004, Sanford said, the community was struggling “in the face of devastating population loss.”

The most important factor in recovery was investing in the infrastructure and community resources of the town, Sanford said. He advised communities to be honest about their assets and drawbacks.

“It hurts our feelings,” Sanford said. “We have to look deep inside and ask, ‘Why don’t people want to live here?’”

While Sanford’s speech was primarily focused on rural towns’ ability to “redefine infrastructure,” this was only one of many issues the workshop aimed to address. The event was done in collaboration with the Midwest Big Data Hub, based out of the University of Illinois.

In addition to Sanford, the workshop featured several other keynote speakers, including former Gov. Ed Schafer.

Schafer’s speech focused on why reviving struggling small towns was so relevant.

“As we see the environment crumble and the crime rise on the coasts in our country, the Midwest lifestyle is becoming much more attractive, and so how do we link into that positive aspect of what we do in rural America?” Schafer said in an interview.

According to Grant McGimpsey, vice president of research and economic development for UND, the university’s ongoing goal is to reach out to rural communities and offer its expertise.

“As the university, we see ourselves as an enabler in that we can actually bring our faculty and our students into the problem,” McGimpsey said.

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The university publicized the event “very broadly,” McGimpsey said, hoping to attract rural community agencies and leaders who could teach as well as learn. McGimpsey sent staff to reach out to communities in central and northern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

Andrea Olson, executive director of the North Dakota Community Action partnership, drove from Fargo for the event, though she said she wasn’t quite sure what to expect. One of her motivations for coming was simply to hear what the governor’s office had to say about rural development in the modern climate.

After Sanford’s speech, Olson was off with the rest of the attendees to participate in more workshops, hear more panels, and, as McGimpsey hoped, network with people who have similar goals.

“It seemed like it was going to be a really fruitful discussion,” Olson said. “If this is meant to be a collaboration, I want to make sure Community Action is at the table.”

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