"We found a community, Hettinger, in southwestern North Dakota, down in a corner where they're just desperate for anything," she said. "I thought we'd have about 20 students, and we had about 250 in the first few months. The community has a population of 1,200."

The sheer demand forced Holt to rethink her strategy of how to best reach rural residents, so she devised a plan where her staff trained key people to be able to go out and train other people. Finding the right people to take on the role of trainer was critical to the success of the community training classes.

"Every community has a few people who have decent computer skills, but, beyond that, are also good communicators and are respected in their community," she said. "In a rural area, if your peers don't respect you and you're teaching a class, they won't come. Finding those people was key to what we're doing."

Maintaining the Momentum

The need to press on in training efforts across the state is imperative, said Orlin Hanson, Economic Development Director of the Renville County Job Development Authority.

"This whole northwestern part of North Dakota is in dire shape," Hanson said. "The two counties right to the West of me - Burke County and Divide County - lost 25 percent of their population over the last 10 years. A good share of that is young couples leaving. My county lost 17 percent over the same course of time."

The first step to economic vitality in rural areas is developing a skilled workforce, he said, and luring companies to the state depends on having such a workforce ready.

"We're trying to promote economic development, and the best way we're going to do that is with private enterprise -- somebody who has a chance to make a profit," he said. "Profit is the greatest motivating factor that mankind has ever come up with. That's what we're trying to do out here -- getting a trainable workforce so those people who see they can make a profit, they'll come in."

Hanson, who lost his ranch in 1996, started as the economic development director approximately two years ago.

"I told the board, 'If I take it, my first objective is getting everybody, and I mean everybody, on computers and the Internet,'" he said. "We started running computer classes that winter in three little towns, and we had 189 people take the introductory and intermediate computer courses."

Holt's group of instructors trained the instructors who ultimately taught the 189 people who took the classes.

"We might be rural, but we're not isolated anymore," Hanson said.

Shane Peterson, News Editor