Build the Change You Want to See
When Laurie and John Sundeen bought their building on main street, they had more in mind than just an updated office space for their insurance business. They wanted to spark a revitalization of the city itself. New Town, North Dakota is situated in a perfect location to accommodate a plethora of businesses and amenities, but local stakeholders, like The Sundeens, feel that the city has lost some aspects of what made it great. “I think that New Town needs a lot. I mean, you look at Watford City and they were more ready when the oil boom hit than New Town was,” said Laurie, who’s been with BBH Insurance for over 30 years and grew up in New Town.
"I'd like to see it get back to where there's more things for the kids too. When I grew up here, we had a bowling alley and movie theater.” Driving down Main Street today is understandably underwhelming from the vision Laurie described from her youth.
A few buildings sit abandoned, with one business closing its doors for good just last month. “It’s very sad that we lost our coffee shop next door,” said John, who has been with BBH since 2013. The building next to BBH insurance had housed beloved local spot JC Java for the past ten years until last month, when they closed shop due to staffing shortages. John hopes that their addition of updated affordable office space will galvanize the local business owners to seek funding help.
“Maybe seeing something like our business will show people that you can get things done here, and workers will want to move here. We don’t want to lose business.”
The Sundeens were able to fund a portion of the purchase and renovation of their building by securing a loan through the Resiliency Fund; a low-interest financing tool offered by Souris Basin Planning Council for businesses recovering from and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Top to bottom renovation is no small feat on its own, but Laurie and John wanted to go further and that meant getting their hands dirty. “We gutted the whole thing, I tore down everything but the ceiling,” said John. It was easy to see how proud they both were of the way the place turned out, especially when they saw the state of the place after the purge of materials, “Is there any way this building is going to be put back together again?” wondered John. But the results speak for themselves.
John was sure that without the loan, this building would have sat as is for some time while they could slowly acquire the funds needed to achieve their desired renovation. They saw with their own eyes what could happen if a building sat empty for too long, so they had to act quickly. With a smile on his face, John continued to discuss the process which came to fruition,
“This building had been so many things over so many years that it had to be renovated differently to be able to function properly as a space and there’s no way we would have been able to do that without the Resiliency Fund.”
The building had previously been a bakery on one side, and a café on the other. Before the renovation, you would open the front door and be greeted immediately by the restrooms. It’s unclear if this was the deciding factor for tearing the place down, but from what Laurie said next, it wasn’t going to be that way for much longer. “I don't care what we do...but you're not going to walk into this building and look directly at the bathroom,” said Laurie.
They knew doing that meant removing the plumbing to be routed somewhere else, which in turn meant they would have to remove existing electrical wires. Upon opening the ceiling John was informed by the construction team that there were four or five live wires just abandoned. “I don’t want to be 2 years down the road and the plumbing starts to leak or my electricity surges,” said John. A full remodel was clearly overdue.
Now when you enter the building, where there once was a toilet, sits a brand-new desk in a small personal office. Perfect for the budding entrepreneur to get their start on Main Street as Laurie and John intended. To the right is the BBH office and to the left is the largest suite, currently available. Two large windows let in more than enough light, with the space offering an abundance of outlets for any commercial entity.
John thinks another small café would fit the space, where Laurie sees the need for a retail store on Main Street. Either way, it is exciting to know that anyone could conduct their business here and create more memories for the people of New Town. Memories that stick with Laurie and John every time they walk inside. John recalls unveiling the renovations to the previous owners of the building, Bob and Shelia Turner, “Shelia was taking pictures, her kids grew up in this building, you know. She's like, “I'm trying to describe the pictures, but I can't even explain to them where this is because they wouldn’t recognize it for a second!”
So, what’s next? The Sundeens have plans to create an exterior patio next to their building designated as public space. When word got out, the local community came to lend a hand, with people even offering heavy equipment for debris removal.“That's what happens down here a lot, you know,” said John. “Everybody's got to work together. The city needs to work together, the tribe needs to work together. Nothing is going to get done unless we all do it together, because we're the ones who are here.” A phrase that so many have uttered across small towns nationwide. The people that live in New Town realize how great of a place they have, and they want it to get better. “There is no reason we should have to go 70 miles away for some of our needs. We have the population to support a lot of these businesses,” said John,
“We have the lake right here, we have tourists coming in, we have one of the most scenic areas in North Dakota. There is no reason we shouldn't have a vibrant community.”
If the effort is put forth to ensure that the city is going in the right direction, then change will happen. For The Sundeens, it’s a question of when. The answer? Hopefully soon. With Laurie and John, New Town’s change for the better is already heading in the right direction. They have advice for anyone thinking about what they can do to help their community thrive.
“Take the risk, sometimes you have to jump in with both feet. Now that we know about the opportunities available to us, we will be using them again.”
The goal of Souris Basin Planning Council is to enhance the creation and expansion of businesses within Region 2 of North Dakota. The financial resources offered are not intended to replace traditional lending options, nor are the funds managed with the same objectives as conventional financing.