Manitoba border towns offer lessons for ND development

Targeted immigration, entrepreneurial development mindset seen as key

Manitoba border towns offer lessons for ND development
Participants in Morden’s annual Corn and Apple Festival parade wave Canadian flags, along with those of other countries including Ukraine and Russia, on Aug. 26, 2023. (Photo provided by Shelly Voth, immigration coordinator in Morden.)

The towns of Langdon in northeastern North Dakota and Morden in southern Manitoba province were once mirror images of each other.

In the 1950s they each had populations hovering around 1,800 people. These prairie communities separated by an international border and around 40 miles of farmland were both incorporated in the 1880s as railroads expanded westward. The new towns were peopled with mostly European immigrants settling to farm the fertile land of the Red River Valley region.

Today, the two couldn’t be more different.

Morden has grown to a population of nearly 10,000 while Langdon’s has plateaued at its 1950s numbers after a slight rise in the 1980s. Most of Morden’s growth has come in the past two decades.

Comparing Walhalla, N.D. and Winkler, Manitoba, a similar story of divergent paths emerges. Just 20 miles apart, their 1950s populations were both around 1,400. Today, Winkler is now approaching 14,000 residents while its neighbor to the south has shrunk to under 900.

Digging deeper into those southern Manitoba numbers shows a picture of a region that in the past two decades focused intensely on retaining population and supporting manufacturing and entrepreneurs. After building that foundation, the communities leaned heavily on targeted recruitment of skilled labor from abroad to fill open positions.

Active immigrant recruitment

In just the last year, 630 new immigrants arrived in Morden, according to mayor Nancy Penner, part of a shift in demographics that emerged over the past 15 years.

“It’s kind of fun to walk down the streets and look at the schools and see the changing demographics,” Penner said. “It’s good. It’s a healthy community that we have and very welcoming. That’s what everybody says, that they all feel so welcome here.”

Growth has also come from recruitment across Canada to fill the needs of manufacturing companies there, with cabinet, trailer and window manufacturing among the leading companies.

Penner says a targeted recruitment and selection process allowed under Canadian immigration policies has helped, as has the city’s establishment of its own immigration office and how it connects with both provincial and federal immigration office programs. Winkler has its own local immigration office as well.

Morden wants people who migrate there to stay in jobs and grow the community, Penner said, not leave for other cities. Immigrant retention rates there hover around 85%, she added.

“That really says something about the selection process that we go through,” Penner said.

Shelly Voth, immigration coordinator for Morden, works through the Canadian federal and Manitoba provincial points-based nomination systems when screening applicants, and coordinates with local companies to determine their exact needs. In the end, the Morden office eventually only choses about 3% of the applications they review.

“The touchy part is trying to pick those nominations that actually want to live in Manitoba and actually want to live in a rural area,” Voth said. “If they have Vancouver in mind, and they’ve applied through Morden’s program, they’re not going to stay.”

The program also has exploratory visit components, with potential immigrants fitting the bill for the visit. Applicants also need a minimum amount of liquid funds before arriving in the community, so they don’t face economic uncertainty as soon as they arrive.

There are also requirements for minimum levels for English language proficiency, even for lower-level jobs, Voth said.

“Some of them will be job hunting as soon as they get here,” Voth said. “Some of them will have connections to jobs, depending on what their process was.”

Jason Dyck, economic development officer for Morden, said one aspects often overlooked is that while immigration is a big part of the story of the town’s growth success, business needs are the primary driver.

“There's high demand and lots of job vacancies in the region, and our industry here needs those people to grow their shop floors and grow their production capacity,” he said. “One of the natural advantages of this area that a lot of places don't have is manufacturing.”

Selecting candidates that are going to be the right fit for Morden is a big part of it too, Dyck said, so officials try to ensure they’re comfortable with small town life before they come.

“Housing’s tight, so we have a bunch of transition apartments to allow them to have a space to live for a period while they get on their feet, getting into their job, and then finding an appropriate place to live,” Dyck said.

The city along with businesses there also works to support a welcome wagon approach, with a van ready to pick applicants up at the airport, to bring them to furnished transition housing with a short supply of food, blankets and bedding available. New arrivals are also enrolled into Canada’s health care system, further easing the transition.

“It is kind of what we do to bridge that gap so that people are feeling welcome from the beginning,” Voth said.

Some in North Dakota believe lessons can be learned from our nearby neighbors to the North.

Dawn Mandt, executive director of the Red River Regional Council, said she’s been interested in organizing a tour for years to the Morden-Winkler area to glean potential ideas for development in the northeastern part of the state, but discussions were scuttled once Covid hit.

“It would be very exciting for our small towns and most definitely for our employers,” Mandt said. “We have this Canadian case study to use as a model - study what worked, what didn't.”

Based on data from the state that Mandt recently reviewed, around 33,000 immigrants now call North Dakota home, primarily filling needs in healthcare, education, manufacturing and agriculture. Others fill positions through programs like the temporary agricultural worker H2A program.

Many of the recruitment campaigns that exist, however, don’t focus on retention she said, and that may be a detriment for local communities, she said.

“Often the foreign-born solutions we are seeing are temporary or seasonal solutions, which taxes our communities even more as these people are not long-term community members while absorbing any remaining available housing that was here,” Mandt said.

Housing and infrastructure challenges

Housing availability is problematic in most communities across the North Dakota, presenting a hurdle for any new immigrants or Americans relocating to the state to fill open positions. It is also increasingly an issue in southern Manitoba.

Morden and Winkler are seeing their share of housing challenges, particularly after years of annual 3% or greater growth, along with limitations to growth from wastewater treatment capacity, leaders there said. But they’ve also been proactive about zoning and working with the community to plan for future growth.

“To encourage development we make sure we work very hard on development fees and zoning bylaws and rules crafted in partnership as much as we possibly can with the people who are going to be doing the work,” said Winkler Mayor Henry Siemens.

This means the manufacturing base in the area also invests in land development to ensure adequate housing supply, knowing that in order for their businesses to expand, the communities would need to as well, Siemens said.

“Ultimately everything starts with a job,” he said. “If you’ve got a job, if you have that opportunity, there’s a reason to come here.”

Siemens also said two planned wastewater projects for Winkler would likely be finished before 2025, allowing for possible growth of around 10,000 more residents over the next 15 or so years.

Looking for opportunity

Shannon Duerr, executive director of the Cavalier County Job Development Authority, said she wasn’t as up to date on developments north of the border, but did describe a similar situation when it comes to housing, infrastructure and workforce needs.

Langdon’s current industrial park is full and the city is looking for a new park for potential development and there’s not a lot of room for expansion in town. Housing and workforce shortages also impact the area, Duerr said.

Duerr said towns in the county need to find a way to grow, and as part of that are looking at capitalizing on tourism related to the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area (PGSRA) being developed into North Dakota’s 14th state park.

“We would definitely like to grow too,” Duerr said. “We want to make sure we're doing it in a smart way.”

Mandt sees immigration as one solution to the net migration loss occurring in small towns like Langdon and Walhalla and other across North Dakota over the past 75 years or so.

“We have 1,500 jobs to fill in our region … in small towns … in the foreseeable future,” Mandt said. “Without population growth, we will continue to see our companies expanding and potentially relocating elsewhere.”

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