Hayden Kemp and his colleagues had a few things to say to Gov. Doug Burgum while he was in town for the Main Street roundtable discussion.
Kemp is a Williston High School student, and he was among youths invited to participate in the high level discussion, which also featured many community and business leaders sharing their thoughts on Williston and its challenges.
Other students participating in the event were Anna Scallon, Maggie Borseth, and Jaydon Kvande, also Williston High School students, and Lenny O’Neil and Ethan Decker, from Williston Trinity Christian School.
They brought a fresh perspective, and Burgum told them he was glad to see them at the event.
“When we started doing these last year, we’d go to a town and everyone in the room was my age or older,” he said. “So you had a bunch of old people talking about what high school kids think. So it’s great to have them here to be part of this.”
Kemp told the governor that Williston High School students had put out a survey of their own in March as part of a class project to find out what youths wanted to see more or less of in Williston. The survey received 200 responses, Kemp said, and the answer was that youths want to see more parks and green spaces downtown, as well as restaurants and entertainment.
“People are craving something they can do more of downtown,” he said.
Noting the empty storefronts on Main Street, he suggested that a more family friendly atmosphere downtown could perhaps help fill them up.
Anna Scallon, seated next to him, agreed with earlier comments that the recently expanded movie theater is a good draw for youths into downtown but …
“We need more things to do,” she said. “I don’t know what businesses are interested in coming to Williston, but maybe we can find some.”
“If you had your pick of an activity (downtown) what would it be?” Burgum asked.
“I don’t know if it’s obtainable,” she replied, “but a rock climbing wall. It could be indoors even.”
“Or a park,” Kemp said.
“We just need more stuff to go to,” O’Neil chimed in. “It gets repetitive going to two places all the time.”
Burgum asked what restaurants are already downtown.
“Basil’s,” one student said.
“Cugini’s,” another said.
Go Go Donuts and Hula Grill were also mentioned.
“Maybe we could have a scavenger hunt downtown,” Kemp suggested. He described an idea for a game using a cell phone to scan a code placed on say, a streetlight, which would then send the phone fun facts about Williston and promotions or coupons.
“So it’d be like interactive, with new technology, and you’d learn history about Williston and get coupons for shopping,” he said. “Kind of like Pokemon go.”
Another idea Hayden suggested is having an outlet store downtown for students in the entrepreneurship class to run.
“Charge them maybe $100 a month to rent it out,” he suggested. “That could pull families downtown.”
More to come from youths
Kristen Oxendahl was impressed with what she heard, and threw out an invitation to Kemp and his friends to participate in a committee that has been working on ideas to make downtown fun to walk around.
“I would like you guys to have a voice as well, to help us implement some of these things,” she said. “These are some really great, exciting ideas. I would love to see high school kids walking downtown, doing the things you are talking about.”
Rich Vestal also urged the students to get involved in community matters.
“I am tickled that you are here,” he said. “We need to talk to more of the younger folks in our community and get them involved.
The airport, downtown developments, new infrastructure that has been built — the students at the roundtable actually have a greater stake in all of that than anyone else at the table, he suggested.
“You will be the ones living with what’s happening downtown,” he said. “This falls right square on your shoulders whether you like it or not.”
The roundtable was not all about what’s in Williston for youths, however. Business leaders also talked about the difficulties getting financing for projects when they first came to Williston, and there was discussion about the importance of the Housing Incentive Fund for essential workers like firefighters.
Phyllis and Jim Stokke also said that while no one at the table would likely have to worry about retirement for another 40, 50 years or so, they wanted them all to think now about that aspect for Williston.
“There’s no reason to leave Williston,” they added. “We have so many facilities here. We have a really good bus service that will take you wherever you want to go. It’s very reasonable. We have a very nice senior citizens center. We are open five days a week and we serve a meal at noon every day. Stay here, and help Williston grow.”
Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford said that is all a very important element to vibrant communities as well.
“Towns dwindle much faster if seniors are leaving for larger communities with better health care he said. “A retirement friendly community is very important.”
Main Street already at play in Williston
Gov. Burgum took a walking tour of Williston’s downtown while here, and, during an interview after the roundtable, said he saw a lot of his Main Street principles already at play on Williston’s Main Street.
“They are getting the street right,” he said. “It matters a lot. The things like bump-outs to make it traffic calming and pedestrian friendly, and the programming like the farmers market and events that the Downtowners Association are having.”
Renaissance on Main, he added, is the type of development he believes makes the most sense in today’s day and age.
“The Renaissance is a perfect example,” he said. “You have retail on the first floor and a combination of essential service housing and some market rate housing.”
And there’s office space above the retail as well, and parking below it.
Investments of private capital where infrastructure already exists typically help shoot property values up, Burgum said, and that makes them the best deal for taxpayers. And by growing up instead of out, cities also save taxpayers money because they won’t need as many miles of water and sewer line, and they won’t have to hire more police officers and firefighters or build things like new fire stations to cover more territory.
Schools, he said, have typically located on the outer edges of a community, and then the city has to chase them with infrastructure. That’s a model that needs to be reconsidered, he suggested.
“Every tax payer in Fargo won when NDSU put buildings downtown,” he said. “If you put it in the middle of a campus, it raises no one’s property values. It’s a new, shiny building on campus, but it doesn’t make the community stronger and more vibrant.”
Burgum suggested Williston and Watford City have made huge strides in the last several years, getting critical infrastructure built under challenging circumstances.
“They are at a higher starting point,” he said. “I heard someone here today saying that we have barely scratched the surface potential of Williston, and I feel the same.”
Workforce for all the jobs that North Dakota has to offer is one of the big challenges facing Oil Patch communities like Williston right now, however, Burgum added, and what Williston continues doing to improve its “walk score” and to create the types of mixed-use developments that the younger workforce prefers will play a critical role in how well the city rises to that challenge.
“These days you have to not only have the great job,” Burgum said, “but also the great community that someone wants to live in.”
What happens in WIlliston and Watford CIty is important to the state as a whole, Burgum said at the beginning of the roundtable.
“For our state to reach its full potential, every community in the state has to reach its full potential,” Burgum said. “Places like Williston and Watford are large regional communities. We gotta make sure those things are really cooking. They have key infrastructure that is important to serve regionally.”
As far as whether his Main Street initiative will eventually provide seed money or small grants to help bright ideas get off the ground, the Governor demurred.
“The answer here isn’t always a check, or a bigger check,” he said. “Sometimes the answer is a better idea, not a bigger budget. Some of the ideas can be driven by private sector and private-public partnership.”