Cyndy Aafedt loves Williston, and she wants everyone else to, as well.
For Aafedt, that meant working to create a welcoming, community-spirited city.
That is why Aafedt is the Williston Herald 2021 Citizen of the Year.
“I grew up here,” Aafedt told the Williston Herald. “I feel like I had a very comfortable happy childhood. I thought — we didn’t have the internet and all — I sort of thought kind of thought everybody lives this way. I mean, I knew they didn’t, because I’d been on some trips and stuff, but I just thought this was what living was. But I wanted to go away to school. My parents were strict. I was ready to go to college, you know, so I went off to Oregon for college and then San Diego, and then I went to law school in Houston, and then I had kids.”
It was then, with children, working at a law firm in Houston, living in a nice neighborhood that she realized how different it was. Parents would sign up for preschool waiting lists as soon as they got pregnant, and there was an all-pervasive sense of competition.
“I just kept wanting my kids to have what I had,” she said, “you know, to be part of a community where you knew people. And you knew their teachers, and you knew their parents. I look back on it, and, it wouldn’t have been horrible if I had raised them there, but at that point, I wanted them to be with their grandparents and their cousins.”
When she and her family returned to Williston, she started working at the family business, the El Rancho Hotel, and she’s proud of the work she did there.
“We did more than rent rooms and serve food,” Aafedt said. “You know, it was a community location, it was a place people would come.”
The hotel served as a convention and meeting space, drawing groups of people from out of town as well as organizations from around Williston.
One thing that still stands out to her is the El Rancho’s claim to fame as the first hotel in the state to have Internet service. She worked with students at what’s now Williston State College to design wiring as a project and hired them to install it during the winter break.
A new owner took over in 2014, and Aafedt stayed on to manage the hotel until a cancer diagnosis five years ago.
But her 20-year sojourn in the hospitality industry had left its mark.
Among the places it left its mark is her home on 13th Street, where she was raised. She bought the property next door and her renovations turned it from a family home to a place where people can gather.
“We needed an outdoor space,” Aafedt said. “It’s not a commercial thing. It has to be hosted by me. I think it only makes sense when I added on I was coming from hospitality like, ‘Oh, I need two bathrooms, oh, I need a gate. I need a place to park.’ I mean, I just thought from that direction.”
The space has been used for everything from wedding showers to launching the fundraising campaign for a new school for Williston Public School District No. 1.
It’s a chance for her to use the skills she spent 20 years perfecting in service of causes that help the community she loves.
In addition to her professional work, Aafedt has served on the Planning and Zoning Commission.
“I want the best,” she said. “But I’m perfectly willing to point out the hard questions. Sometimes people only know me from one of those things, and they’re like, well, she’s tough. But I’m just confident enough to be able to go whoa, wait a minute. How did you arrive here? And should we really be there?”
That’s rooted in her love for the community and in her experience spending years away from Williston before choosing to come back.
In Houston, for example, she saw the public school system go through major problems.
“When I came back here, I remember kind of looking because I had seen this, I’ve watched it happen, I’ve been concerned about it,” she said. “My kids are getting to school, and I’ve come here and I’m like, you guys, were right here on the curve. Okay, we’re right here. And you could see it because you’d lived it, you’ve been part of it.”
Sadly, she points out, many of those experiences are negative, but it can also stop things from getting worse than they already are.
“I’d say, so we’re here in a downward trend,” Aafedt said. Let’s not go so low. Let’s do this and go back up.”
It’s dedication, not pessimism that drives her to ask difficult questions. She knows from her own experience how wonderful a community Williston can be. She wants to make sure everyone else gets a chance to see that, too.
“I was raised by my parents to be community minded in all things,” Aafedt said. “I want everyone to be blown away when they spend time in Williston by our hospitality and our ability to get things done. I want them to relax and be comfortable in our surroundings. That started with the El Rancho and I have extended into my home.”