- Associated Press - Sunday, January 8, 2017

WATFORD, N.D. (AP) - Upon graduating high school, Daniel Stenberg had wanted a career helping others cope with death as a funeral director. Now, he’s hoping to help breathe life into McKenzie County communities.

Bringing more arts and recreation opportunities and other quality of life enhancements will be the focus of Stenberg’s tenure as McKenzie County’s economic developer.

Stenberg will be stepping in as longtime economic development director Gene Veeder steps down. Under Veeder’s leadership, Watford City got a bypass, hospital expansion, new high school and an event center - some of the necessary infrastructure to serve the growing oilfield community.

Stenberg now wants to provide “those opportunities that are going to make (McKenzie County) a place to live, not just a place to work.”

“Watford is in a pretty unique position,” Stenberg said.

It’s changed a lot from what he remembers growing up, an agriculture-driven community filled with similar lower middle-class working residents. He moved to a big city, met lots of different people, and now that he’s moved back, he sees a new diversity in his once sleepy hometown of Watford City.

“It’s a small community but also kind of a big community,” Stenberg said. “It’s a little bit more of a vibrant community - slightly faster paced but not crazy.”

Now he’s in a position to help make newcomers feel more at home with the types of amenities to which they are accustomed, The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/2hHVsv6 ) reported.

For example, Stenberg helped launch a farmers market over the summer that saw about 275 people weekly - newcomers mixed with lifelong residents.

Variety in a job is what had drawn Stenberg to the funeral industry, which boasts a bit of counseling, art and community interaction, along with a business aspect, so many years ago. He had planned on two years at the University of Jamestown for business then mortuary school.

But an internship with the U.S. Department of the Treasury would lead him into a more varied career.

“Once I did that internship, I got hooked into government,” said Stenberg, who soon found himself working on energy policy and rural poverty issues for the Midwestern Governors Association. Still working for the association, he returned to North Dakota in 2010, living in Bismarck.

“I love (Washington) D.C. but after a while I figured out it’s a pace that isn’t sustainable, in my mind, for the rest of my life,” he said.

A chance happening upon some letters written by his grandfather would lead Stenberg to a detour, making a documentary, “6 Brothers,” based on his grandfather’s family’s life as North Dakota homesteaders. That brush with local history turned into a job with the museum in Watford City.

Stenberg also spent some time with North Dakota Job Service’s Labor Market Information department, which he thinks will make him “a little more number oriented” in his new McKenzie County position. And his federal experience could give him a leg up in applying for grants.

Stenberg will still have Veeder, who Watford City pulled in from a brief retirement, to look to for help. He said he thinks the progress made by the county to date is a testament to the leadership and proactive approach of Veeder and former Mayor Brent Sanford.

Veeder said he can’t speak for the city but feels officials asked him to come on after Sanford made the move to the lieutenant governor’s office to help ease the transition, as the former mayor had worked hard for the city alongside Veeder in the area of economic development.

Veeder said his past five years in the county were busy.

“It’s been pretty much a wild ride,” said Veeder, adding he thinks keeping up with economic development in the area is more than a one-person job, leaving plenty for both he and Stenberg to do.

He thinks Stenberg’s different skill set will bring a new perspective to the job, he said.

“It’s good to have a youthful, bright person,” he said.

To kick off his quality-of-life goals, Stenberg points to Williston State College and the University of Mary potentially offering classes at the new event center as an area of opportunity.

“It will make the community more nimble when people want to change jobs or make themselves more marketable,” he said, pointing out that it opens potential for high school students to earn dual credit.

“We’re also trying to get an art foundation started here in town,” said Stenberg, who noted Watford City already is host to local musicians, dancers and a cowboy poet.

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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