Wiring the Rural West: Maddock, N.D.


Maddock stays alive
by going against the grain

Published: Oct. 31, 2000
Dateline: Maddock, N.D.

Never mind what the map says. North Dakota, on purely aesthetic merits, is not the West. It is too lush, too well-mowed and entirely too orderly. There is no wildness here. On the other hand, it is far too wide-open to ever be mistaken for the East. You ask for directions to the hotel and the answer is ''Turn right at the light -- and go 90 miles. You can't miss it.''

America's Great Forgotten Middle is getting more desolate all the time, as one farming town after another quietly fades away. Pretty soon it'll be possible to drive half the day on these laser-straight farm-to-market roads and not go through a single town that has a high school, a bank, a future.

In Maddock, on State Route 30, a civic-minded retired carpenter named Dale Palmer has placed signs on the highway at the north and south entrances to town. The four-foot-high yellow block letters read: ''Maddock Centennial 1901-2001.'' They should really say ''NOT DEAD YET.'' That Maddock is going to be alive to celebrate a centennial is no small feat in this area.

For almost 100 years, the anchor of Maddock's economy has been the grain elevator. Today, Maddock's brightest prospects for the future live in a new brick building that's connecting the town to the Internet economy.

Outmigration is the unseen hand that's choking the life out of farm towns on the Great Plains. With the exception of a few boom years in the early '70s, the last four decades have been a long, downhill spiral of falling grain prices and falling populations. The drought of the late '80s knocked Maddock into an economic ditch from which it has yet to emerge. In the span of just three years -- 1986 to 1989 -- outmigration shrunk the town from 750 people to 559. After that, Maddock operated under the vague presumption that it was headed inexorably toward the same fate that has befallen its neighbors: slow death by attrition.

It would take a leap of faith to break Maddock out of this 40-year collective funk. And there is no one with more faith in the future of Maddock than Bruce Terpening.

'Internet exploded
at the right time'

If Terpening, a former high-school science teacher turned building contractor, were any more upbeat, someone from law enforcement would probably drive the 40 miles from Devils Lake to investigate. For the past 15 years, he's been the pro bono head of the Maddock Economic Development Corporation, a volunteer civic entity that consists of 10 or 15 people who give a damn whether Maddock lives or dies.

It gets cold in Maddock in the winter. Really cold. So December to April is the time most people stay indoors, hunker down and scheme. In the winter of '97 the Internet became accessible with a local call from Maddock. And this is where Terpening's big scheme began.

He and the rest of the economic-development group had been trying unsuccessfully for seven years to get federal ''empowerment zone'' funds to address the outmigration problem. Terpening knew he had to find another way. The technology boom that had reshaped much of the country's economy over the last few years might as well have taken place on another continent, for all the good it had done North Dakota's Lake Region.

A technology center that would put all of Maddock's economic development efforts under one roof -- a digital watering hole on the plains -- would change all that. Never mind that nobody in Maddock's leadership circle had any telecom experience. ''We'd had agriculture and agriculture-equipment manufacturing,'' says Terpening. ''The group knew it had to try something completely different. We didn't know what that was. For us, the Internet exploded at the right time.''

Honey pots of
federal funding

Terpening's original idea was to provide a shared, wired-to-the-hilt space in downtown Maddock for businesses, health care and education. As he talked with North Dakota's senators and rural-development bureaucrats he became more adept at finding the honey pots of funding hidden in the federal system. The plans began to change to suit the fiscal realities.

''We need to build a building.''

''We can't help you. We don't fund buildings.''

''Well, what do you fund?''

''Business incubators.''

''OK, then, fine. We're a business incubator.''

In the end, the tech center came to include: a business incubator, commercial tenants such as an insurance office and an accountant, a small health clinic, child care and not one but two federally funded Head Start programs.

The Maddock Business and Technology Center, born on the Fourth of July 1999, appears at first glance to be a prime example of federal pork -- a big, beautiful new building dropped by Uncle Sam in the middle of a long-suffering locale. The 12,000 square-foot brick edifice -- owned by the city and managed by the development corporation -- is by far the nicest public structure for maybe 40 miles around, but it is not a gift by any means.

It was built with $400,000 in USDA low-interest loans, $200,000 in funding from the city of Maddock and the development corporation, $149,000 in USDA grants and $25,000 from the state of North Dakota. Marianne Sears, a CPA, is the business manager of the center and Terpening the general manager. They say the building is now self-sufficient, pulling in enough rent from its assorted tenants to pay $2,350 in debt service each month plus $1,650 in operating expenses.

'They just don't want
to feel left out'

Only in the last six months has the center really begun to feel like the hub of activity for downtown Maddock. The center's runaway hit this summer was a set of five ''Introduction to Computers'' classes held in the computer lab just off the main lobby. Becky Arnston, a 20-year-old Maddock native who's studying business and management information systems at a college in Bismarck, spent much of her summer vacation teaching 41 mostly senior-aged computing neophytes how to live hand-to-mouse.

Each class began with how to turn on the machine and progressed to basic navigational skills, e-mail, search engines and the Web. Arnston says family e-mail was the killer app pulling her older students in -- that and a driving need to not be left behind in the rush to digital culture. ''Beyond the family communication, it's that they just don't want to feel left out,'' explains Arnston. ''They've heard people talking about www-this and www-that and they want to understand what's going on.''

This minor miracle -- a single volunteer guiding 7 percent of the town into the digital world -- won't be replicated immediately. Arnston had to return to her studies in September and there are no replacement teachers lined up. Terpening and Sears say they'd like to offer more advanced classes such as Web design, but again, a lack of instructors is a problem.

Across the lobby from the computer lab, a half-dozen Maddock high school students hang out most afternoons, surfing the Web on four public-access terminals and building their own modest Web pages. They are the town's digital elite, having learned HTML and Web design basics from the high school's technology instructor, Flo Kallenbach. Eventually, Double-O Web Design, their nascent coding business, may end up building pages for local businesses and civic groups and hosting those pages on a Web server at the center.

Center gains support
but not everyone's

The three business incubator tenants, each with its own one-room office, round out the center's mix. The biggest is AgriImaGIS, an agricultural imaging business founded five years ago by Lanny Faleide, a local farmer-turned-entrepreneur who grew wheat, barley and sunflowers around here for 20 years.

Faleide's firm takes satellite images from federal government sources and repackages them with proprietary software. Farmers use the infrared photos of their fields to measure vegetation density and crop quality. The information helps them plot the pinpoint application of fertilizers and pesticides. For the last three years, his clients have been able to retrieve the images bylogging onto the AgriImaGIS Web site.

In the adjacent incubator office, Lisa Swanson Faleide, Lanny's wife, runs a women's reading room and plainswoman.com, a regional Web magazine. And on the other side of AgriImaGIS is a tiny call center for Innes Publishing, a Chicago-area company that publishes four trade magazines for the printing industry. Innes employs five here. As Ed Innes points out, five employees may not seem like much of a wave of economic development, but in a town of 559, those jobs are felt.

After a slow start, the people of Maddock are finding their way into the center. While some of the residents who used to rely on the center's Internet-access terminals have now bought their own machines, there's been a large second wave of casual users who occasionally drive into town to check their free Web-based e-mail accounts. The demand on the four machines is now so high that the center has had to implement time limits.

Between the free Net access, the classes, the child care and the businesses, it would be reasonable to assume that the center had touched just about everyone in Maddock. But that hasn't been the case -- yet. Donna Rice, a city council member and former mayor, says there's still a significant portion of the town that has yet to set foot in the center. ''This is just going to take time,'' says Rice. ''They're Norwegians. They're stubborn. And they ain't gonna just change their mind overnight.''

Last February, Maddock suffered a collective chill down the spine when Hometown Grocery, the town's only food store, shut its doors. Much to the relief of the community, the store reopened in May. But before it did, more than a few of the town's leaders had asked themselves: Is this it -- the beginning of the end of Main Street?

Residents already drive 40 miles to Devils Lake or more than 100 to Grand Forks for most professional services. The consensus feeling was if everyone drove to Devils Lake for groceries, it was only a matter of time before the hardware store, the pharmacy and the bakery -- the only businesses of their kind in Benson County -- also folded.

Pharmacist Larry Taylor is the new guy downtown. A former missile launch officer at Grand Forks Air Force Base, he had 13 years in the service and was about to be promoted from captain to major when the Cold War ended, unceremoniously putting him out of a job. After six years of pharmacy school, compliments of Uncle Sam, the man who used to have his finger on The Button had a new career.

Two years ago, when construction on the tech center was just starting, he looked around Maddock, where his wife grew up, and saw a town that was putting up a good fight against outmigration. ''I saw the center as an indicator of the character of the town,'' says Taylor, who now sits on the center's steering committee. ''Rather than put our heads down because farming was not doing well, to actually have some people willing to take a risk and do something innovative and against the grain was significant.'' Taylor decided to stay, and bought the pharmacy that sits directly across from the center.

Today, he has some ambitious e-commerce plans of his own, for a virtual pharmacy operation that would service outlying towns that are too small to support a pharmacist. Small-town residents who currently must drive 60 miles round-trip for prescriptions would be able to consult with Taylor over a videoconferencing link and have the drugs dispensed by a pharmacy tech at the satellite location in their own towns.

He's not sure how his conservative clientele might feel about discussing their gout and their angina with a disembodied face on a video screen, but given the choice between that and the drive to Devils Lake, he believes many will be willing to at least give it a try.

JoAnn Rodenbiker, a rural economic development specialist at the local electric co-op, believes that without the technology center, the whole downtown might be gone. ''It's premature to say if the center worked. But without it? Roll up the streets and we can all go home. . . . Nobody would have looked to come into the pharmacy. Nobody would have tried to reopen the grocery store. If nothing else, it's created a sense of hope.''

Exodus continues;
town still in danger

It's hard to say if the great leap of faith that Terpening and the rest of Maddock's leadership made nearly four years ago has been rewarded. While the center was under construction, a consultant hired by the city posted some grandiloquent prose to www.maddock.org: ''We now have the ability to transact business with markets anywhere in the world at the speed of light. We can market local products and services 24 hours a day, seven days a week to anyone that has Internet access.''

Nobody is doing that, with the exception of AgriImaGIS' Lanny Faleide -- who would have been doing it anyway, regardless of the center. The center has meant the creation of 10 full-time jobs and 12 part-time positions, none of them tech jobs, strictly speaking.

The next generation of potential civic leaders -- the Becky Arnstons of the town -- are still headed for careers and lives far from Maddock. An estimated 80 percent of each high school graduating class leaves town, just the same as when Terpening was a kid. The real goal is not to attract new people to Maddock, but rather to repatriate some of the natives who have fled to Grand Forks, Minneapolis and points more distant. ''If you talk to people who are 35 or 40 years old, living in Minneapolis, they would like to come back and raise their kids in a little slower environment,'' says Terpening.

Terpening's best-case scenario for Maddock in 10 or 20 years would be slow, steady growth in non-farm jobs, ideally the home-grown entrepreneurial type that would be nurtured in the center. The worst case: In 20 years downtown Maddock is a senior center, a post office and little else.

No digital technology will ever negate the fact that Maddock is a community built on grain. And none of the good that's happened since the Net came to town will count for anything if the price of wheat continues to slide. The Durum No. 1 wheat that lines mile after mile of the roads around here went for $4.10 a bushel five years ago. Today, Maddock's farmers get half that. ''Farming will still be what makes or breaks these towns,'' says Larry Taylor. ''More than anything else, that will determine whether we're still here or not.''

Come what may, the tech center is right there for all to see -- a brick-and-mortar monument to renewal and resolve. After so many decades of being beaten down, Rodenbiker and others can speak of having a reason to hope. There is hope that things could turn around. Hope that Maddock's sons and daughters will find their way home. Hope that this little island in the sea of wheat might see a few more anniversaries after all.

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