Editor’s Note: This month’s Point of View series looks at diversity in the southern Red River Valley. First up: Who are the people coming to cities like Hankinson and Colfax, North Dakota?
His job led Tom Steinolfson to his home — and he could not be happier about it.
The CEO and general manager of Red River Communications, Steinolfson is not a newcomer to North Dakota. He spent his childhood in Pembina County, graduated from high school in the neighboring city of Edinburg and spent more than 25 years in the city of Steele. After spending three years in Iowa for career reasons, Steinolfson was delighted to be back in the southern Red River Valley. He is now a resident of Colfax, North Dakota.
“I knew I wanted to live in either Richland County, North Dakota, or Wilkin County, Minnesota, because that’s where we serve our customers,” Steinolfson said. “I had looked at homes — Lisa Mauch actually reached out to me, to be my realtor. We looked at homes in Wahpeton, in Hankinson and a home that Nathan Berseth had built here in Colfax.”
Steinolfson and his wife, Lisa, liked the home in Colfax. More than that, they liked the feel of the home, its location and especially the people they would live with.
“It’s really worked out well so far,” Steinolfson said.
More than 150 years after Morgan T. Rich claimed land including much of present day Wahpeton, the southern Red River Valley is still being settled. Communities continue to evolve, resulting in more voices being heard.
Over the course of 2010-2020, News Monitor reported in August 2021, Richland County’s diversity index grew from 11.5 percent to 20.6 percent. A diversity index represents the likelihood that two persons, chosen at random from the same area, belong to different race or ethnic groups.
“The white population in Richland County declined by 4.1 percent, or 633 people, from 2010-2020,” News Monitor reported. “The Hispanic or Latino population in Richland County increased by 111.8 percent, or 303 people.”
Growth was also seen in the county’s Black population, a 40.9 percent increase, or 45 total people; American Indian and Alaska Native population, by 41.5 percent, or 137 people; and Asian population, by 45.5 percent, or 40 people.
“The data paints a picture of a state and county that are becoming more diverse, much like the rest of the country,” News Monitor reported.
Change can be measured in a multitude of ways, from U.S. Census data to less-heralded individual stories.
“What I find super-intriguing is how new perspectives are brought in,” said Justin Neppl, executive director of the Southern Valley Economic Development Authority (SVEDA). “We gain new people with new ideas. These new people can sit on boards and different levels of government. That’s what we want to see, outside perspective. I also think it brings in a fair number of entrepreneurs who want to start businesses.”
The southern Red River Valley is an attractive and competitive place to live and work, Neppl said. He considers it a location “with about any job that you’d ever want.” Change continues to come on the local level.
“With a few more people in town, I believe we’ll be able to have access to more amenities,” Steinolfson said.
Steinolfson gave the example of Colfax Express, the city’s locally-owned gas station and convenience-grocery store. It currently closes at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, stays closed Sunday and reopens at 7 a.m. Monday.
“If you have a sudden need on Sunday, you’re either running to Wahpeton or Fargo,” Steinolfson said. “I believe that as more people come to the area, more opportunities will be possible.”
The Steinolfsons are empty nesters, but they understand the importance of a strong school system. Berseth, a member of both the Richland County Board of Commissioners and the Richland 44 School Board, agrees — and sees the schools as part of a bigger picture.
“We are diverse. We’re a fairly large county, geographically. If you want to live on the northern tip of the county and be 15 minutes away from the metropolitan area, you can. If you want to get to a quieter setting, but with the full community feeling, you’ve got Lidgerwood, Wyndmere, Hankinson, Wahpeton, Fairmount and more,” Berseth said.
Having so many options in Richland County and the full southern Red River Valley is a good thing, according to locals.
“You’ve got Hankinson, which has everything that a small town needs,” Berseth said. “They’re far enough away and yet close enough. It’s the same with Lidgerwood, Wyndmere and Fairmount. You go to the northern part of Richland County and you’re closer to the big city, but you don’t have as many amenities in a town. There’s a trade off. At the same town, all of those communities have school districts. You have choices.”
Steinolfson is enjoying what he has settled into. He hopes others feel the same way.
“We think about paved streets and the new people who are here,” he said. “It’s a good thing. I’d say my home is pretty tight-knit and very welcoming. These are friendly people.”