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Activists, community leaders, law enforcement huddle with Heitkamp for Safe Communities Summit

FARGO - She's only been Foster County emergency manager for nine months, so Jess Earl looked a little nervous when she strode up to a stranger sitting in the crowded Holiday Inn ballroom here and struck up a conversation about what North Dakotans...

FARGO - She's only been Foster County emergency manager for nine months, so Jess Earl looked a little nervous when she strode up to a stranger sitting in the crowded Holiday Inn ballroom here and struck up a conversation about what North Dakotans should do about the transportation of crude oil by rail.

Earl worries about oil transportation, especially since an oil train derailed and exploded in nearby Wells County just four months after she was hired. "The train tracks go right through town."

Earl was one of hundreds of attendees at the first Strong and Safe Communities Summit hosted by U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., on Thursday. Its goal was to give community leaders like Earl and others a chance to put their heads together to address issues such as crude oil transport, drugs and crime, human trafficking, and other growing pains challenging North Dakota communities.

The session that attracted the biggest crowd was on economic development.

Breakout session leader Dawn Keeley, executive director of the Red River Regional Council, said small communities like her hometown of Grafton aren't being swept along in the state's economic boom.

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Grafton is still struggling, as are many other rural communities, with classic problems that include an aging population, population decline and an infrastructure that's aging along with its residents, Keeley said.

"The rising tide isn't lifting all ships," she said.

The state's labor shortage and infrastructure worries were identified as roadblocks to economic development, along with the lack of child care and affordable housing, and a teacher shortage.

Those problems spilled into another breakout session that addressed drugs and crime.

State Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said the state's workforce doesn't have enough nurses or other skilled health professionals to serve the increasing number of North Dakotans who are addicted to drugs, a shortage he said is reflected nationwide.

Out of the state's 350 licensed addiction counselors, 60 did not renew their licenses this year.

Heitkamp said it is important for people to identify where federal help is appropriate and where it isn't.

"It's not enough that we just create economic opportunity," she said. "We also have to maintain the core of who we are, as North Dakotans."

Related Topics: CRIMEPUBLIC SAFETY
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