Farm town boomNAPOLEON, N.D. — Paul Bitz says with a smile that his town leads the world in per capita construction.
By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek
NAPOLEON, N.D. — Paul Bitz says with a smile that his town leads the world in per capita construction.
The Napoleon, N.D., businessman — he’s part of the ownership group of Napoleon Livestock Auction — may be exaggerating a bit, but he makes a valid point.
This farm town of 800 is enjoying a building boom that has seen roughly 20 businesses expand, remodel, put up a new building or otherwise improve their facilities in the past few years.
In addition, Napoleon has made a number of city improvements recently, including water, sewer and street upgrades, a pool repair/improvement project and installation of an additional warning siren.
The town also has seen an influx of young adults, some of them Napoleon natives who returned home after living elsewhere.
“We’re proud of what’s been happening in our community,” says Athena Dunn, the Napoleon-based Logan County Economic Developer.
In an era when many farm towns have struggled to survive, why is Napoleon thriving?
“We have a very progressive business community,” says Nick Breidenbach, general manager of Central Dakota Frontier Co-op in Napoleon.
His business has made a number of improvements, including putting up a large addition to its building.
At least four other factors are in play, too, city officials and businesspeople say.
n Strong crop prices over the past few years have brought more money into the local economy.
n Seeing some businesses make improvements encouraged other businesses to make improvements of their own.
n A “generational turn,” for lack of a better term, in which the next generation is taking over their parents’ farm, ranch or business.
n More people, especially one with young children, are attracted to small-town lifestyles.
A too-familiar trend
Many small farm towns in the Upper Midwest have struggled to hold on to people and businesses in the past 30 years.
One measure of that: North Dakota has lost about 71,000 rural residents since 1980, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
Many factors — including bigger farms, fewer and smaller farm families and the rise of so-called “big-box retailers” in nearby cities — are in play, experts say.
Most North Dakota counties lost population from 1980 to 2010. The few exceptions were counties with the state’s largest cities or home to oil resources.
Logan County, in which Napoleon is located, was one of the population losers, dropping from 2,847 in 1980 to 1,990 in 2010. For every three people who lived in the country 30 years ago, only two live there today.
Logan County — which ranks a 9, or most rural, on a federal urban-to-rural scale of 1 to 9 — has lost farms, too.
The county had 426 farms in USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture, down from 472 in the 1992 census. USDA conducts its census every five years, most recently in 2007
Napoleon itself — named after Napoleon Goodsill, a pioneer store keeper and president of the town site board — has lost residents, too. It dropped from 1,100 residents in 1980 to 800 or so today.
Families today generally have fewer children than they once did, so it’s not uncommon for even healthy small towns to drop in population, experts say.
Anita Fettig moved to Napoleon in second grade and eventually married a Napoleon native. For 27 years, she’s operated a day care business in town.
About 5½ years ago, she decided to open a consignment store, known today as Nita’s Attic and Coffee Haus.
“It started as a hobby and grew into a business,” she says.
It wasn’t an easy decision, despite her deep ties to Napoleon. At the time, she says, she had doubts about how the business would be received and also about the long-term health of Napoleon’s business community.
Those doubts were quickly erased. Soon after she launched the new business, several Napoleon businesses made significant upgrades.
“I knew I wasn’t ever going to be here alone,” she says of her reaction to the town’s building boom.
She’s added on to the business five times since it opened, with the gourmet coffee shop opening a year after the consignment shop.
The consignment store, which has about 600 consigners, draws most its customers from outside Napoleon, she says.
Other businesspeople in town say that many of the out-of-town customers at Nita’s spend money at other Napoleon businesses, too, further boosting the town’s economy.
Fettig has opened another consignment store in Jamestown, N.D., but she remains committed to Napoleon and her store there.
“This is just a wonderful community. You look at our Main Street (where many businesses have renovated or expanded) and you see that,” she says.
Babies, schools, attitude
Fettig says her day care business has seen more activity in the past few years, adding four or five babies in the past year alone.
That bodes well for Napoleon, which still has its own school. That’s increasingly unusual in rural North Dakota, where many school districts have had to merge because of declining student numbers.
In contrast, Napoleon’s K-12 enrollment has stayed stable at about 250, and future enrollment projections are promising, says Superintendent Elroy Burkle.
He credits that to town residents’ positive attitude and determination.
That’s a common theme among city leaders, including Terry Schwartzenberger, president of the Napoleon Business Association and publisher of the Napoleon Homestead newspaper.
The lifelong Napoleon resident says the town has many businesspeople who are committed to their community.
One example of that is Napoleon Livestock Auction’s new building, which includes a room where community meetings and events can be held.
“We really want our business to be part of the community,” Bitz says.
More than high crop prices
Everyone familiar with agriculture on the Northern Plains knows that area farmers generally have enjoyed strong crop prices and profits in the past few years.
Farmers participating in the North Dakota Farm Business Management Education program averaged net farm income of $174,010 in 2010, $114,520 in 2008 and $127,791 in 2007, compared with just $35,980 in 2006.
Napoleon businesspeople say improved crop prices and farm profits naturally have contributed to the building boom in their farm town.
But changes in ag meant ag businesses needed to make changes of their own regardless of what happened with crop prices, Napoleon businesspeople say.
For instance, Green Iron Equipment, John Deere dealer in Napoleon, expanded its shop to help accommodate bigger farm machinery, manager Barry Wentz says.
And though Napoleon officials are too polite to say so, other area farm towns have benefitted from high crop prices — and few, if any, of the other towns have seen the same level of recent business activity as Napoleon.
While city leaders say no single factor explains Napoleon’s success, they keep coming back to attitude and mindset.
“We have a lot of people who believe in this community,” Schwartzenberger says.