Thriving on the Prairie

Jodi Bruns, NDSU Extension, talks with Kari Helgoe, NDSU Extension - Pembina County; Brenda Stallman, Traill District Health Unit; and Rachel Morrison, Cavalier Area Chamber of Commerce about Community Impressions, a program that helps communities learn about their strengths, and weaknesses, as seen through the eyes of a first time visitor.

Show Notes


Jodi Bruns- Good morning and welcome to Thriving On The Prairie, a podcast exploring issues concerning families and communities that inspires North Dakota movers, shakers and community difference makers to engage in lifelong learning. I'm Jodi Bruns, leadership and civic engagement specialist with NDSU extension, and I'm joined here today with my colleague Kari Helgoe. Kari, would you introduce yourself this morning?

Kari Helgoe- Jodi, thanks for inviting me um my name is Kari Helgoe. I am the Pembina County um Extension family community and wellness Extension agent up in Cavalier. 

Jodi Bruns- Thanks for joining us, Kari. And we're also joined by Brenda Stallman from Hillsboro, Brenda, would you say hello this morning?

Brenda Stallman- Yep. Good morning, Jodi, and listeners. I'm Brenda Stallman, Director of Traill District Health Unit in Hillsboro. I've been in my position for 30 years now, and I'm happy to be here. 

Jodi Bruns- Thank you-  Rachel?

Rachel Morrison- Good morning. Thanks for having me. I'm Rachel Morrison. And I'm the executive director of the Cavalier Area Chamberof Commerce. 

Jodi Bruns- Thanks, everyone, for joining us and talking a little bit about our Community Impressions program and your involvement with that. So we're here today, like I said, to talk about Community Impressions, and what exactly this program is. It is  an NDSU extension community program. Ah Essentially, I like to tell people, it is a secret shopper program for communities. But really Community Impressions, helps communities learn about their strengths, and weaknesses, as seen through the eyes of a first time visitor. Knowing about the strengths and weaknesses helps those who want to be proactive about the growth of their home communities, and who want to make them more vibrant places to live and work. Ah so maybe we'll just get started. So when communities reach out to me or an agent like Kari and ask about the Community Impressions program, if they have an interest in doing this, immediately, I try to find a community that has some similarities, we often look at demographics, ah or business community, community involvement, we like to have some similarities in North Dakota clearly is a small state, and so everybody in Cavalier has certainly heard about Hillsboro. But we try to be far enough apart, or you don't know all of the intricate details about each community, but enough, just enough to know about it. Maybe your community and your school has been involved in athletic events, or maybe Speech and Debate or you know, there are some connections. So I look at census numbers. And according to that, Hillsboro’s population is about 1624 residents. And Cavalier stands at about 1238, give or take, right? So pretty close in size. And so when we start this program, I reach out to the local agent like Kari, and talk about our orientation program process. So we like to go into the community and talk about a team, a team approach. So finding that group of volunteers who are willing to participate in the program. And then we do an orientation, so you know what the expectations are. So Kari, if I could ask you, when you first approached the community about this, how did you proceed with orientation? And we do have kind of a script that you can talk to community members about, but what did that look like in Cavalier? 

Kari Helgoe- Well, the first person that I reached out to was Rachel, you know, I mean, and talked to her and asking her, you know, I sit with her on the chamber board, and is this something that they'd be interested in doing, of course, I had visited with you as well about, you know, what would be a good matchup and which way we go, and Rachel is just one of those individuals that she is actively always promoting the city of Cavalier, and looking towards the future and some different growth pieces, so, and she's got a lot of great connections. So when we talked about an orientation, I kind of put it into Rachel's lap a little bit, you know, I mean, looking for some of those ones that she might that might be interested in doing this. And we met for a couple hours in the afternoon, if I remember right, Rachel around a conference table and one of the banks and we kind of just went through all the guidelines, and we had a full table of people that were interested at, you know, just coming to check it out to see eventually, you know, what would it all entail and go through and we went from top to bottom, some of the difference when you say like a secret shopper. Not only is it just retail, but it also involves all of the, the aspects of the community, from the hospital, in the schools, to the parks and a lot of the businesses so a lot of different entities and kind of thinking about coming at it from different ways, Rachel had such a wide variety of people that she brought to the table, not only male and female, but also younger families, some that were established in the city for a while, so a lot of different inputs, and at the end of the orientation, we really just kind of sat down and talked about their time. And could they, you know, invest in it because it meant traveling either, you know, at least one time, if not more, and what they could do and how they could divide it out. 

Jodi Bruns- And you make a really good point that, I think it's important not to bring the same 10 people who are always involved in the community, which we, we need those people 125%. However, I think it's really important to bring people perhaps who are new to the community, because their perspective would certainly be different than those who have lived somewhere their entire life. And not that one is better than the other, but certainly a different perspective. So that's a great point. So Brenda, I'm curious, why did you get involved with community impressions? 

Brenda Stallman- Well,
as you know, Jodi, Jodi and I met through the rural leadership program through NDSU. And so that was our first meeting. And you actually asked me if I would be interested in so I was it's a personal passion of mine to visit small communities and look for those hidden treasures and things that you don't often hear about or see driving by on the interstate. So it was a perfect fit for me. As you know, the the transfer of the leadership of this program went from myself to the the extension office, and then and then subsequently, our county agent transferred to a different community out of our state. So that probably made a different look for how we approached it here in Hillsboro, and really, I think, speaks to how it was done in Cavalier and the necessity of having a strong team, and looking outside your traditional associations um  that you always go to and find those new people in your community

And those that might have a different eye when looking at a community. 

Jodi Bruns- good points, good points. Rachel why did you get involved? Why did you think this would be a good program for Cavalier? 

Rachel Morrison- Yeah, when Kari came and talked to me about it, we just kind of visited about the importance of that fresh perspective on your community. I have lived in Cavalier my entire life. So it's easy to drive past maybe that same eyesore every day, and it just kind of fades into the background or, like I dropped my kids off at school every day. So I know where to find it. I don't need the signs. So to have somebody come in and say, Hey, we couldn't find your school, you need some signs, or, hey, that building on Main street, ohhh, yikes, it was just something that that fresh perspective, it was just so invaluable to us. So we really, really got that out of it that we were looking for.

Jodi Bruns- I think that's really interesting, how many times you drive through a community for the first time and wonder why is that pile of wood there? or Why? Why don't they do that gravel? 

Rachel Morrison- Or how  come nobody's approached that before?

Jodi Bruns- Why don't they paint that building. And that's true. I mean, we we do it in our own homes, we look at something for so long, we just don't even see that it's an eyesore anymore. So that's a really good, good perspective. So um so as you prepare to travel to each community um so you you had some orientation. I know when I went to Hillsboro we talked about taking a lot of pictures. So making sure you're taking and documenting your visit, visit with people. I mean, we even talk a little bit about maybe getting into kind of a role where we're putting on a hat of thinking about a visitor for the first time. And I know that you have been to each other's communities, perhaps but not with such a critical eye. We might go for a ballgame or go to visit family but really to dig in and and talk to people like you're there for the first time. I will let me start with Brenda. So when you when you went and visited, what maybe what were you hoping to accomplish when you when you traveled to the other community? 

Brenda Stallman- Well, two things like I mentioned before, I really enjoyed visiting other small towns in North Dakota. So it was just personal enjoyment that I was looking forward to. But secondly, things that I could garnish from the hill or from the Cavalier community that we could bring back to Hillsboro and say I saw some really cool things up in in Cavalier and these are things that we should probably look at here too. Just looking for I don't know just how a community presents itself and how the people treat their their visitors and guests. I think communities each have their own type of culture. And I find that interesting as well. So I was looking forward to, to seeing how the community of Cavalier presents themselves to to people visiting there and, and learning from them and just not knowing not what to expect, really, as you said, I, my experience going to Cavalier was at night going to ballgames. So, to me, it was really fun to go up there in a daylight looking for new perspectives, looking at the layout of the community, and how it's so beautifully nestled around the river. And those are all things I did not see before. So just going with an open mind expecting to see things differently than what I had seen in the past. 

Jodi Bruns- It's a great perspective. So Rachel, or let me What were your your expectations? What were you hoping to see? Or did you go with them like kind of a predetermined idea of what you would see?

Rachel Morrison- You know, I really didn't know what to expect. We sent a couple different groups to Hillsboro, when you talked about the secret shopper. It reminded me that we had one couple go. And they had just recently moved to Cavalier, gone through the experience of buying a home and everything that that entails. And so they went to Hillsboro, and did that exact same experience. And they just kind of acted out and looked around like, we're looking for housing, what what else would that lifestyle bring to us? And they had a great response. The group that I went with, we were doing more downtown shopping, talking to the people, the school facility, there were a couple things that we noticed right away, and it was the community pride, like everywhere, people that lived in Hillsboro, they loved it. And it really made us want to find out why,  what do they love so much about living there? We got to the softball complex, and saw there was a playground there. And we were like, Oh my gosh, that's what we want and Cavalier. When we talked to the people from Hillsboro afterwards, they said, Yeah, we got this grant for it, let us give you the information. And just that exchanging of that resources was so important. And it was just it really gives you a way to follow up on not just these first impressions, but how do we exchange these ideas and make it take real steps from it afterwards.

Jodi Bruns- And I think that is the real beauty of the program, as I have participated, just as I had one, traveled with other communities to do the exchange just as a participant, but also to be a community report out. We'll talk about that a little bit. I think that's where the richest information comes from, is to why why do we have to reinvent the wheel? I mean, if if another community has found the funds to create a playground or a pool or a softball facility, why can't we learn from each other and find out how to make that successful? Something Brenda said to  that, I think that you kind of reiterated was the fact that every community has a culture. And that can be warm and welcoming and prideful, or it can be negative. And it's kind of off putting. I've experienced both. And unfortunately, it can be kind of shocking. I had the experience of going to community as a secret shopper, and I asked a waitress “so we are in town for a couple of hours, what what can I do,  I have a couple of hours until my meeting, what can I do?” And I was clearly told there is nothing here to do. And you should go to X community. And not the response I was expecting I kind of thought or do I tell them why I'm here. But I didn’t. You know, but we included that in the report out and thinking about a community's culture and how it affects the bottom line. You know, we can talk about, you know, just being a welcoming, prideful community. But those things also affect the economics of a community. We talk about customer service, and will people stop and Cavalier, or will they go to the next community? If they don't feel welcome? Why would they stop and buy gas there? Why would they stay and seek out a specific restaurant? So I think all of those things are pretty telling when you embark on a project in a program like this. So Kari, I'm curious as the local agent and you also live in Cavalier when your group returned from their exchange in Hillsboro? What were some of the things you heard? Were they excited about your experience? any surprises? 

Kari Helgoe- You know, like Rachel said, they went down in multiple groups and did some different pieces when it came to that, you know, I, this group really took the lead on what they were doing, Rachel was there was their point person, and she was helping put a lot of those pieces together. But they were the thing that I heard in the saw with all of the pieces that were coming through via emails and those reports, they were really excited. They were really thrilled at the medical facilities, the nursing home, just the the warm, welcoming home feel that was going on some different things that you know, I mean, normally for Hillsboro, for us, it's like it can be a drive by we stopped for athletics, but it's a drive by it's right there on the interstate you gas up, you grab something to eat and go, um, you don't get to see the different pieces that are in their town, from their golf courses to the, to their downtown unique coffee spots that they have that all small communities can really have. But it's like what brings us in. So as they dug deeper into it, you could just hear the excitement of what they liked. And then some of the things that they didn't. So they put a lot of pride in a lot of work into what they were doing. So but again, I'm going to, you know, like when you can find community members like Rachel and Brenda are both super strong proponents for what they have, and are always looking for ways to improve it. They put their best foot forward. And it showed not only in the words that we were hearing back, but also their report outs. 

Jodi Bruns- So Brenda, I'm curious, in the packet that we supply each community, we every participant gets a packet of potential questions or things to look for just simply as a guide. And we always ask to think about your first impression. Roll your windows down when you come into town. Take a critical eye look around for signage. What was what was your first impression when you drove into Cavalier with a critical eye? Were you What What were you looking for? And what were some of the first things that hit you?

Brenda Stallman- Well, we and I think we could say this for both teams from each town, did careful viewing of the websites that each community offers before we went. So we kind of had an idea of what businesses were existing in each community. But what I noticed first and enjoyed and appreciated was Cavaliers business district. And I think that probably is one of the stark differences between Hillsboro and Cavalier and that Hillsboro is a bedroom community. And so we are really struggling with our downtown. Whereas my impression was very excited to see the downtown vibrancy and Cavalier in the cars, it probably was close to lunch hour, but there were cars lined up, up and down the street on Main Street, and I'm a coffee drinker and I looked for and found the coffee shop right away. And that speaks volumes to me, because that's the kind of thing I enjoy in a small town is a place to get together with people and get the vibe of the community and enjoy a cup of coffee. And I think that is a real telling sign of, of how a community operates by just sitting and observing in a local coffee shop. And so that was exciting to me to see the vibrancy of their downtown district music playing on speakers as you walk up and down the street. So I thought that was really really exciting. 

Jodi Bruns- Great observations that's that's neat. One thing that I found surprising when we did the community report out when I attended in Hillsboro, and your mayor Terry Sandow had said, one of the first impressions they're working to correct in Hillsboro is sometimes the smell that comes from the beet processing plant. And that is one of the very questions that's in our packet of suggested things to consider is are the smells of the community. And I had never really thought about the implications of such a thing until Mayor Sandow mentioned that and I thought , wow, what a, what a great observation and really thinking critically about all of the important things that people experience when they come to a community for the first time. So, I thought that was pretty impressive that you were at least having the conversation about that.
Rachel Morrison- So I can add to that note, when we were looking at the website for Hillsboro beforehand, we were visiting on the way down and checking everything out, and we loved the that you address the smell like it said, you know what that smell is that smells like success. And we just thought that was such a fun, great way to play on that and we just thought that was just an awesome little tagline. So kudos to Hillsboro for that.

Jodi Bruns- Right. It is what it is. So make the best Right.

Rachel Morrison- exactly 

Jodi Bruns-Thanks. So um was there any major surprises? I mean, I think about what I have done the the exchange, you certainly go in with some expectations um . So I might just open it up and ask, did you have some preconceived ideas about what you um  would not only see, but maybe how you would be received? Perhaps um it would be customer service or things you've heard from other people who are familiar with the community? Was there any major surprises or expectations that maybe didn't follow through for what you thought might happen? 

Brenda Stallman- I would go with the idea of growth in a community with building of new housing. And this was an error on my part. I did ask, we looked for housing developments, because that's how Hillsboro is kind of expanding their development by development, they are building and feeling of developments where in the immediate community of Cavalier. That wasn't real obvious. But what I did not see and probably miss, one of the best components of the community of Cavalier is outside of the initial building center, there are Community Housing groups building out in the trees along, you know, outside areas that I did not see. So I'm sure that would have been a real beautiful look, had I explored a little further and and found that and so my first impression was that there was not actually housing being developed, which is not the case that is just not on the first look coming into town. 

Jodi Bruns- Rachel, how about you?

Rachel Morrison- You know, one big thing that surprised me when actually during the report out when Hillsboro came to Cavalier growing up in Cavalier, I've spent countless hours at Icelandic State Park, which is just five miles west of Cavalier. And so for me, that's such a big part of our community. So when the team came, and they said, Oh, we didn't even realize it's so close, there was no signage. And it was like such an aha moment for me, like, we have this major asset, like, we got to play it up more, we got to get the signage there. We got to build that so that everybody knows about it, we don't want this to be our best kept secret. And that was just a lightbulb moment for me for sure.

Jodi Bruns- That's great. Great. So some of the logistics of this program, I'll just run down for our listeners. So once we've established the two communities that we'll be doing the exchange, we do an orientation. So I reach out to the local agent, Keri did the orientation in Cavalier and I did that in Hillsboro. And then you're armed with that packet of information, and you determine the communities determine how they will do the exchange. So I know some of you, some have sent to carloads at different times, depending on how the schedule allowed, and then you met back, you meet back and gather your information and create a presentation. So then you go back to the community and do a report out. Now I wasn't in Cavalier, but I was in Hillsboro, when the Cavalier came to do the report out. And I just will never forget the energy in that room at the courthouse that they. Um It, it was one, a packed house and people I think were genuinely excited about what Cavalier was going to say about the community. And I think it's important to know that this isn't necessarily, I would say a gotcha kind of program, I know that there's been some concern that they're just going to come in and and point out all the negative things and that one, that is not the point. And two, it shouldn't be sugar coated. You know, that's really not the point. This has to be a learning experience. What can we do to make our community a better place one into I think it's important to highlight the important and positive things happening in a community because those things are prevalent too. And sometimes we can be our own worst enemies and think about, everybody's leaving, we don't have anything going on. And that's never the case, in every exchange that's happened, positive things have happened, not only for outside the community, but also for inside the community. When we talk about culture, I think that's a really important piece of this program, is to also continually tell your existing residents about the good things happening in a community. So I'm curious, Brenda, if you could tell us about that day in Hillsboro. I believe you were kind of the point person on that with the local extension office and gathering people and what did you tell people? How did you get people to that report out telling them the Cavalier was coming to town to talk about their visit to Hillsboro?

Brenda Stallman-  I think that's exactly like what you stated and that people are interested in wanting to hear how others perceive our town. And from my own perspective, I was a little nervous because like you say, and what was mentioned by Rachel is that you, you, you get used to things that maybe others will see for the first time. And they maybe not be the way you want people to see your community. And I found myself comparing the two communities and that wasn't actually what we were asked to do. And yet I do see differences. I wish some things in Hillsboro were like what we saw in Cavalier, and I kind of worried about what they would say about our downtown, because we do have a lot of vacant spaces. But um talking to people and asking them to come was an easy sell. Because we do want to grow, we want to win. It's nice to hear the strengths and Cavalier did just a wonderful job and and presenting our community in a positive way. But I think people generally just wanted to hear what outside people have to say about our community. So it was really an easy sell. And I was pleased to to see all the people that did show up. 

Jodi Bruns-So what's happened because of this exchange? 

Brenda Stallman- Well, I would have to say that the pandemic happened. So that's probably made a difference in how things progress. But I can tell you that our economic development, folks have offered beautification grants to our businesses in Hillsboro. And we do have a brewery being built in town here, we have mixed feelings on if we're going to build a business is that the kind of business that we want in Hillsboro, but it's going to be a new building and a good looking building. So that that is positive for our community, and hopefully will bring some employment opportunities. Our Historical Society is really strengthening in numbers and in their, their projects. They've done some exterior work on our museum, and really are presenting themselves in a way that draws young people into that organization and wanting to hear about history, which is refreshing, because as you know, in small communities, you have your same members on every board. But this group seems to be strengthening and growing. And we're in we're happy to see that. So I think there's been some some positive changes, it's hard to see them on an instant notice, but over time, I I can only say that positive things have happened. So I am very pleased. 

Jodi Bruns- Good observations, Rachel how about what are things you've observed because of the exchange?

Rachel Morrison- I would agree, you know, it's hard with the pandemic to see this immediate influx of change. But something that I wasn't even expecting to gain going into this that I've seen many times. It's just the,  the relationships that were formed, you know, we think of Hillsboro now, like, oh, they've got that program, I'm going to email that person that I talked to that day, and get a tip from them. And the exchanging of resources back and forth has been huge. We've had a couple different strategic planning sessions on a couple different boards that I'm on. And it seems like there's always a tidbit that we can throw in that, you know, that when they came here from Hillsboro, this is what they said, So, so put that on our plan, we want to get that done as soon as we can. And just I think when other people hear that somebody else came to our community and made that observation and had that perspective, it just goes a little bit further, it just kind of kind of puts the green light on some of these things. So it's been very, very valuable that way.

Jodi Bruns- Just probably reinforce your point that the expert comes from 50 miles, we tend to believe that we can we can say something and promote something to the local community 1000 times but when someone from outside comes in and says it, it makes all the difference in the world. So...

Kari Helgo- Jodi, I want to just jump in there really quick because I serve on the the rec board and we've been fighting with that pool building, which has been falling apart and I was like they and the group from Hillsboro brought it up and they're like, it's a beautiful park. But then you have this little you know, this building that really needs a lot of love and tender and we have been, we had been working and kind of trying to do something and talking and going and our voices just weren't falling on the right ears, but they heard it in the mean came across from what they did. And we now have a new roof on it. It has a whole new different look to the exterior, it blends into the pieces. It is no longer an eyesore, which is really great. And then Rachel you want to talk about that bike program that you all of a sudden you're connected. I mean, you talked about doing something that you wanted to do. You know, bring a little bit more notice to the park, and you guys did it you made that happen in the city.

Rachel Morrison- Yeah,
there's now a new bike share Co Op program that we've got. And there's 10 bikes that are now located on Main Street in Cavalier and 10 out at Icelandic State Park, you can rent a bike through an app, you can use it for daily rentals, hourly rentals, and you can use it on the path that connects Cavalier to Icelandic State Park. And we noticed tons of people, you know, renting them in one place, riding the town and then being able to park them there, you don't have to go back where it came from. So it was a really good connection point that came out of that this

Jodi Bruns- That's an awesome success story. That's great to hear. Yes.
And I think you've both made an excellent point that community change does not happen overnight. And certainly doesn't happen any quicker in a pandemic. And so, I think some takeaways are it's important one, to be really honest with each other. And, and no one, in my experience has been malicious, it's been a genuine concern, asking good solid questions. And then supplying some honest feedback. And then also, I think it's really important that patience is important. And the big changes don't happen overnight. But it's also important to recognize that partnerships are equally as important as a building is. And so you know, when we think about some of that change, it may not necessarily mean a new business, it could mean a new sign, telling people how to get the Icelandic State Park, or whatever that might be, it might be a call between two auditors exchanging information on a grant. You just never know. So I think that's really an invaluable piece to this particular program. So I might end with asking Kari, so what would be your advice for other communities who might be interested in participating in community impressions? 

Kari Helgo- You know, I think if you have an interest or it piques your interest, ask just call your local Extension agent. They might not know about the program right away depends if you know what you have, and they'll do a little digging. But I think that that gets the ball rolling as long as you can ask. And then all we do is we reach out to Jodi, and she'll come up with Okay, some some of the other communities that she's heard from, or thoughts and and pieces, but it's just a matter of kind of putting it in and what what can we do. So the first step is just following through. 

Jodi Bruns- Yeah, great. Thank you. Thank you, everyone for sharing your input, and your insight into the community impressions program. And as Kari said, if you have an interest or further questions, reach out to your local county extension office. And we'll make those connections. So appreciate everyone's time today. So thanks for listening to Thriving On The Prairie. To subscribe to the podcast and access a full transcript and resource links from this episode, visit slash thriving on the prairie. You can find more resources for families and backslash extension. This has been a production of NDSU extension, extending knowledge changing lives.

What is Thriving on the Prairie?

A podcast that inspires North Dakota movers, shakers and community difference-makers to engage in lifelong learning, featuring conversations with NDSU Extension professionals and guests exploring issues concerning families and communities.