Starion Speaks with Brian Ritter, Bismarck Chamber EDC
The Bismarck-Mandan area is a unique and wonderful community. From the friendly residents to the beautiful landscape of the Missouri River, most would just say “once you live in a place like Bismarck Mandan, it’s hard to go anywhere else.”
But what exactly makes the Bismarck-Mandan community so unique?
This week we took that question (along with a few more) to someone who’s not only a long term resident of the area, but someone who’s heavily involved in all-things “BisMan”. Brian Ritter, the president of Bismarck Mandan Chamber EDC, answered some questions about our local small businesses, entrepreneurship, up and coming things in the community, and what it is that allows Bismarck-Mandan’s economy to continue thriving, even as the country struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic.
We hope that our conversation with Brian will give you a few things to look forward in 2021 along with some insight into the inner workings and structure of the local economy.
What makes Bismarck-Mandan different from other cities in the Upper Midwest?
When you look at the entire region, Bismarck-Mandan has one of the most diverse economies hands down. Most communities in the Upper Midwest are college towns, base towns, or factory towns where one major employer is the economic center. But in Bismarck-Mandan, we don’t have one economic center - we actually have four.
Government, healthcare, education, and energy generation.
First, being that we are the state capital, we’ll always have the solid stable base of government work.
Second, we have healthcare. Our two largest private employers are actually healthcare systems - CHI St. Alexius and Sanford.
Third, we have education. Most people may not believe this, but the single biggest school district in the state of North Dakota is actually Bismarck Public Schools. On top of that, Mandan Public Schools is actually growing too. While it’s true that most school systems are growing, the Mandan Public School System is growing at a faster rate than the rest in the state.
Fourth, we have energy generation. Both Basin Electric Power Cooperative and Montana Dakota Utilities are two large major employers in Bismarck in the energy generation sector.
These four sections make the stable base of our economy. Even if we had a major slowdown in one section, we wouldn’t come toppling over because the other three will still likely function very well.
The diversity within our community is what makes the economy so strong and stable, and it’s also what makes it appealing to so many different businesses.
Where does small business fit into that economic structure?
While we have government, healthcare, education, and energy, we’re still going to have gaps - and that’s where small businesses come in. They can fill in the gaps and find opportunities to work with the major employers to try something new and innovative.
What areas of opportunity do you see for small business in 2021?
Last year was such a difficult year for so many reasons, and as community leaders we have to look for the silver lining.
If you're an entrepreneur who previously thought you couldn’t run a business out of your home, now you know you can. If you run a restaurant, you now know that the community will support things like take-out or curbside pickup.
The major opportunity for small businesses this year is that no matter what industry you're in, you can do things differently and still succeed.
How did the community weather the pandemic last year?
Sales tax collections are a great place to start for this question.
From November 2019 to November 2020, the amount of money being spent in the community was actually up 13%. New building permits? Up 20%. Existing home sales? Up 15%. Job openings? There are still about 2,400 open jobs in Bismarck-Mandan which is just slightly lower than when the pandemic started last spring. The school systems are still growing too.
If you look at Manufacturing, something we haven’t talked about quite yet - we have Bobcat. They currently have never had more employees in Bismarck Mandan then they do right now.
Of course, not everything is perfect. There were definitely businesses that were adversely impacted and we certainly have challenges like the 2,400 open positions. That means we need people - that's a challenge, but a good one. Overall, our economic indicators quantifiably tell us that Bismarck-Mandan continues to grow and the challenges we face are associated with growth.
What can you attribute those positive economic indicators to?
The diversity. If we were a primarily service-based economy, the lockdowns would have shut everything down and mass layoffs would have happened.
Government services still have to be delivered. Healthcare still has to be delivered. Education still has to be delivered, even if it isn’t in person. Energy still has to be delivered. When you flip on the lights, you still want the lights to turn on even if you’re in a pandemic.
What are some exciting up-and-coming things happening in the community?
Let’s start with healthcare. The Bismarck Cancer Center is going through an expansion right now. Missouri Slope is right now taking on a large construction project. In eight to ten years Sanford health is proposing the construction of a brand new heart hospital in downtown Bismarck.
In education we have Bismarck constructing two new elementary schools. One in northwest Bismarck and one in northeast Bismarck. New schools are being discussed in Mandan as well.
In Mandan we have Cloverdale Foods which is going through a $20 million expansion as we speak.
Like I said before, we have Bobcat who has never had more employees in Bismarck-Mandan then they do right now. Manufacturing is really growing at a fast rate.
We have new commercial projects too. A new building is going up in downtown Mandan on a lot that had previously been empty for years - and now an architectural firm is going in, a law firm, and a title company.
Kupper Subaru is putting up a new store in northwest Mandan.
In the retail market we have things like Chick-fil-A coming to the community. That’ll be down on South 3rd street.
Some great quality of life projects like the Heritage Riverboat Landing down on River Road. The Gateway to Science Center is raising money for a new facility near the Community Bowl. Ducks Unlimited is building a new 140-acre park in the middle of the community off of Burnt Boat Drive. In downtown Mandan, we’re adding onto the library and constructing a new park along Main Street.
There are plenty of things to look forward to in the community.
Do you encourage partnerships between the city and private sector?
Absolutely! We have a few great examples too. Terra Nomad putting a new restaurant into the Heritage River Boat Landing. The park project with Ducks Unlimited, this is a great example too.
Ducks Unlimited negotiated with a private landowner to purchase the land to then build a 140-acre park. Once that park is completed, Ducks Unlimited is going to turn that park over to Bismarck Parks and Recreation. This is a very innovative partnership. Ducks Unlimited goes out and raises the money to purchase and develop the park - and when they’re done, they turn it over to Parks and Recreation so the entire community can benefit.
Gateway to Science is another great example. That was a piece of property owned by the City of Bismarck. Through a partnership between Gateway to Science Center, BSC, and the City of Bismarck - the property was turned over to Gateway to Science Center to build a brand new facility. They’re going to create a new stem facility that the entire state will benefit from and it’ll be a showpiece for the community.
These are some unique ways that the private and public sectors are working together.
What would you say to someone wanting to start a small business in 2021?
This community has and will continue to rally around our small businesses. This community has and will continue to support entrepreneurs. The time has never been better to step out and take that chance. Because through all the adversity, Bismarck-Mandan has shown we are willing to support our own and are willing to give that person a chance.
Starion Bank is proud to support small businesses and our communities and we especially love having conversations like these! For more information on what’s happening in the community and a complete directory of the businesses in the Bismarck-Mandan community, check out the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber EDC website.