• Image about North Dakota
The Dakota Spirit
Illustration by Jun Park

It’s a Midwest phenomenon. North Dakota, population 600,000+, has a booming — yes, booming — economy during this less-than-stellar economic period in American history. Which leads to the question: How? It’s called …

Outside King House Buffet on Broadway Avenue in downtown Fargo, N.D., sits a kiosk containing free copies of JobDig. In the first week of August, the newspaper listed dozens of job openings across North Dakota, including those for IT specialists in LaMoure, mechanics in Mapleton and “Little Dukes” cashiers in Bismarck. It also had information about a job fair put on by the Philadelphia Macaroni Company in Grand Forks, and it suggested ways you could “get serious about your future” with the Air National Guard.

Almost as an afterthought, a slim piece of paper discarded from a fortune cookie sat folded neatly inside the box of newspapers. It offered the following advice: “Character is the cornerstone of success.”

Strong character has always counted in Fargo — and, in fact, across the entire breathtaking and ever-changing natural landscape of the Great Plains. Author Kathleen Norris, who returned to the Dakotas to live in her grandparents’ former home, summed up her surroundings in her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography: “On a clear night you can see not only thousands of stars but the lights of towns fifty miles away. Scattered between you and the horizon, the lights of farmhouses look like ships at sea.”

Today, North Dakota, with a modest population of just over 600,000, is in the midst of an immodest economic boom that is the envy of the nation. Yes, the Peace Garden State will always have deep roots in agriculture (it leads the nation in the production of 12 commodities, including honey, and Cass County almost always leads all U.S. counties in soybean production), and it may always have tiny towns and elbow room aplenty. But it also has Microsoft Fargo, biotech startups, medical centers, cultural and recreational amenities, and research parks that are anchored by universities. And the palatable sense of optimism and contentment you’re likely to feel while you’re having a cocktail on the rooftop bar of Fargo’s Hotel Donaldson runs so counter to the current postrecession malaise in states like California, Ohio and Illinois, you might feel as if you had better double-check the date on your BlackBerry just to make sure you haven’t somehow jumped into the future.

Here are just a few indicators of North Dakota’s roaring economy and growing reputation as a great place to do business:

  • North Dakota — with an estimated 2009 population of 646,844 — boasts an unemployment rate that hovers at or below 4 percent (3.6 percent for July 2010).
  • In late August, there were more than 11,000 job openings posted at Job Service North Dakota’s website (www.jobsnd.com), but that number includes only those positions that remained open long enough to be posted. Oh, and by the way, they need skilled workers. Lots of them.
  • The rich, oil-laden Bakken formation beneath the western part of the state has vaulted North Dakota to fourth place among the 31 oil-producing states in the nation, or 5.5 percent of all oil produced in the U.S. so far this year. (The oil revenues from more than 300,000 barrels a day have also pumped up the surplus in the state’s coffers, a surplus estimated at around $1 billion.)

Then, there are also all those lists that place North Dakota near or at the top:

  • The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2010 Report stated that Fargo had the cleanest air in the nation for the second year in a row.
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce placed North Dakota first in economic growth over the last 10 years.
    CNNMoney.com announced that the state capital, Bismarck, was the second-best small metro area in the country to launch a business in 2009.
  • In 2009, Forbes named North Dakota the seventh-best state in which to do business.