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Hettinger County, North Dakota—
Agriculture, Tourism and Oil: Bright Days Ahead

—Ted Natt, Community Success Journalist

You won’t find a traffic light or a hospital in rural Hettinger County, North Dakota.

What you will find are 2,477 residents whose friendliness, newfound collaborative spirit and sense of community are playing a key role in strategically preparing the county for its first real economic growth since 1930.

Although the impacts of the fast-growing oil industry in western North Dakota are primarily affecting counties to the north of Hettinger, there is growing potential for oil production in or near that county. “It’s a real boom, It’s like the old days of the Gold Rush,” says Mark Resner, executive director of the Hettinger County Job Development Authority. “We have had such a tremendous economic upheaval that it becomes difficult to even evaluate where we are.”

Enter Building Communities, an economic development strategic planning firm that has helped Hettinger County develop a plan that will help its residents and cities by shaping the upcoming era of job growth and economic revitalization. The plan focuses on housing development, day care facilities, infrastructure issues, tourism and implementing a more inclusive comprehensive plan.

Those priorities revealed themselves during the planning process because the county, which has lost population each of the past eight decades, now finds itself with 400 to 500 new residents due to the oil boom. “It’s a huge paradigm shift. It’s mind-boggling,” Resner says. “All of a sudden our shrinking population has turned around. We were really at a loss as to how to deal with it until Building Communities stepped in to help us.”

Resner says the real challenge is how to move the county forward without losing its agricultural roots. “Agriculture is our main industry and we don’t want to lose sight of that,” he says. “Our goal is to embrace the positive economics and new population without destroying our volunteer base and traditional culture.”

Brian Cole, president of Building Communities, says it was rewarding to see a county without a history of collaboration come together for the future benefit of all. “The strategic plan we developed has everyone of the same page,” Cole says. “County leaders have determined the best strategies to advance the local economic condition and overall quality of life. They have chosen the strategies with the greatest likelihood for successful local implementation.”

Take tourism, for example. Hettinger County is home to the Enchanted Highway, a 32-mile stretch of paved county highway between Regent and Gladstone that features seven giant sculptures, one every few miles. The sculptures include a depiction of President Teddy Roosevelt riding a bucking horse, a Tin Family, a covey of pheasants, geese in flight, the world’s largest grasshopper, a giant deer leaping and a metal fish jumping up 70 feet through a metal pond surface.

All of these creations are the brainchild of Gary Greff, a retired schoolteacher with no previous sculpting or artistic experience. Greff started the work in 1990 because he saw his hometown of Regent dying and wanted to help bring it back to life. Each piece of folk art is paired with picnic areas and playground equipment.

But Greff’s bigger dreams are to add a water park, restaurant and amphitheater. For now, there is the Enchanted Highway Gift Shop in Regent and the recently opened Enchanted Castle, a 24-room hotel where guests park under the drawbridge, are guarded by knights in armor and attended to by the royal staff. Greff purchased the former Regent High School a year ago and converted it into the royally themed hotel, which includes a workout room in the old gymnasium. It’s a shining example of the can-do attitude in Hettinger County, and preserves a piece of the town’s history while attempting to keep the community alive and vibrant with new business and return visitors.

The hotel has given tourists who make the journey to the Enchanted Highway a reason to stay longer and spend more money in the county.

Now that the hotel is open, Greff plans to begin work on his eighth roadside metal sculpture – the world’s largest motorcycle at 42 feet tall and 102 feet long. “It all began with one man who had a dream,” Cole says. “The county now has a unique opportunity to build on that dream.”

Cole adds that the overall goal was to unite the county’s residents through the planning process to help them focus on economic diversification strategies and quality-of-life initiatives to maintain short-term livability and achieve long-term economic balance. “Building Communities just feels blessed to have been selected to help the county develop an objective, comprehensive strategic plan that will help its residents envision and enact their future,” he says. “It is a plan unique to Hettinger County and designed by local stakeholders with actionable strategies that they can implement.”

Resner says the Building Communities planning process was efficient – the strategic plan was developed in less than a week – and effective. “They helped us develop strategies to tackle the social, cultural and economic impacts of the encroaching oil boom,” he says. “We really needed that focus. I don’t know where we’d be without them.”
Resner is also confident that the resilient residents of Hettinger County will step up and get involved.

“We’ve handled tornadoes, blizzards and droughts. We can handle an oil boom,” he says. “It’s making me an old man, but I’m glad I lived to see it because it’s a new challenge. That has to be the attitude.”

Yes, the can-do attitude of Hettinger County.

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