News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 26, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Are you up for high-paying jobs and wide open spaces?

Admit it. You’ve daydreamed about it.

Yes, North Dakota. There must be something in the water (or ice) up there, you figure. What else would explain the Peace Garden state topping all those “best in the nation” rankings? It’s the healthiest state in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index released this week (Indiana ranks 40th). It’s No. 1 in personal income growth (Indiana ranks 28th), according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. How about cheap taxes? You betcha. North Dakota ranks in the top 10 of the lowest-taxed states, according to WalletHub.com (Indiana is No. 16). A veritable 70,700-square-mile slice of heaven, thawed or frozen.

You’re so curious, you’re contemplating doing spring break — it starts Friday afternoon for Vigo County school kids — in North Dakota, just to see what all the fuss is about. You might even go to the state’s NDtourism.com website and click on the link for Things (yes, it’s plural) to Do.

But wait, there’s more.

North Dakota wants you. And your family. Last week, the state’s Economic Development Foundation unveiled its “Find the Good Life in North Dakota” campaign, spending $800,000 (half private, half public funds) to entice out-of-state workers to fill 25,000 jobs in its oil-booming economy. They’re looking for skilled workers in a gamut of occupations (not just oil-field jobs) to move to this “great place to live, work and raise a family.” Lock, stock and barrel, as opposed to recent influxes of outsiders who keep one foot out the door, maintaining their home-state residences while trekking back and forth from a job in North Dakota, reaping its heftier paychecks.

North Dakota’s “Good Life” campaign will target residents of states with “chronic unemployment.” Indiana’s jobless rate topped the national average through most of the post-recession era, but dropped below the U.S. rate in recent months. Still, Indiana has experienced the largest decrease in workforce participation of any Midwestern state since the recession began in 2007, according to an Indianapolis Star report. Today, 32 percent of potential Hoosier workers aren’t participating, for various reasons.

Will North Dakota target Hoosiers? After all, as economists in that Indy Star story pointed out, the biggest enticement to re-enter the workforce is a bigger salary, and North Dakota’s median household income is $55,766 compared with Indiana’s $46,158. (Terre Haute’s is $41,039.)

The ad campaign’s target audience won’t be finalized till May. “I can’t tell you if we would be in Indiana or not, yet,” said Sara Otte Coleman, director of North Dakota tourism and project director of “Find the Good Life.”

If that happens, it would be an ironic twist. Economic development leaders in the Hoosier state are on a mission to aggressively entice corporations and businesses to leave other states and relocate to Indiana. One targets quality of life for workers, the other quality of life for companies.

North Dakota and Indiana share a similar facet of economic recovery. In 2004, Indiana led the nation in percentage of residents moving elsewhere, according to an annual study by United Van Lines. Indiana bumped North Dakota, which had held the highest percentage of outbound migration for the prior four consecutive years. The situation has stabilized for both states since then. In fact, North Dakota leads the country in population growth and has an all-time high of 725,000 citizens. (By contrast, Indianapolis has 844,220 residents.)

Still, there are not enough people to fill the vacant jobs there.

Perception may be the problem. North Dakota has a reputation as a desolate place with long, harsh winters. Indiana is still living through the last throes of one of its longest, coldest, snowiest winters. It’s got to be worse in North Dakota, right?

“People think, ‘If it’s cold in Indiana, it’s got to be 10 times colder in North Dakota,’” Coleman said, “and that’s not true.” Ice fishing may tail off by April. Snowmobile races had to be canceled in some cities because of a lack of snow, she explained. “We haven’t had snow for weeks here in Bismarck,” Coleman said by telephone Tuesday from her hometown.

The state has dealt with some growing pains from the surge in its oil production, which ranks second only to Texas. Housing prices in some cities jumped dramatically, as availability struggled to meet demand, with so many incoming workers looking for places to stay. Williston, a city in the state’s oil region, has the nation’s most expensive average entry-level apartment price, topping $2,000 a month, according to a story in The Atlantic.

“Things are improving,” price-wise, Coleman said. Thousands of new hotel rooms have been built in recent months, and housing starts have risen.

Also, the flow of predominantly male job-seekers in the oil-related trades left men outnumbering women by as much as 58 percent to 42 percent. The state’s economy has since diversified, and Coleman estimates that nearly two-thirds of those 25,000 unfilled jobs are outside the oil industry — everything from health care to information technology, skilled trades, energy and engineering. North Dakota wants them to bring their families and stay, balancing out that gender disparity.

For those who find North Dakota “the right fit,” as Coleman put it, they may also “Find the Good Life.”

Indiana suits me just fine. Some Hoosiers, particularly the under-employed, may listen closely to North Dakota’s pitch.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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