The ND Interim Legislative Commerce Committee met for the last time yesterday and covered several topics relevant to rural North Dakota and the Agricultural community. It was striking how much impact COVID-1919 has had on many of them – some positive, some negative. To begin, the ND University System testified to the progress of the ND Career Builders and Skilled Workforce Scholarship and Loan Repayment Program. This was a tool passed in the 2019 session to help businesses recruit and retain talent. Your NDSGA supported it so that we can keep welders, manufacturers and IT people important to the Ag industry in our state.
COVID-19 has made the pool of talent a bit deeper because our unemployment rate went from the usual low 2 percent neighborhood to the 9 percent area. Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer testified that the unemployment rate has since dropped into the 8 percent range. At any rate, the program is new and once well understood should help fulfill its lengthy title. Kommer also explained that her department is working to build capacity for rural economic development and pursue workforce.
Then Nicolas Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems test site, discussed how they are trying to set up the site in the Watford City – McKenzie county area. Drones can be very helpful to oil and gas industries as well as environmental and agricultural interests. They work closely with Grand Skies at the Grand Forks Air Force Base to continue progress on what makes long range drones economical – namely, the ability to go without chase planes (holding a human pilot). This is called Beyond Visual Line of Sight and it was granted to North Dakota before anywhere else in the USA. Utilities have drones flying along their lines and the U..S Border Patrol with Customs also is pursuing these technologies.
Then Lori Capouch who is Rural Development Director for the ND REC updated the legislators on the issue of rural grocery stores. There was talk of how the state could help these struggling entities stay afloat and keep our rural areas viable. You may recall I reported on a locker system with a central distribution point. These ideas are still ongoing, but the silver lining of COVID-19 in this case is that all rural grocery stores saw large increases with the pandemic with some up by 100 percent. She indicated that shows there is indeed the rural population necessary to support those stores. No one knows what will come this session on that topic as this interim committee is not formally bringing any bills forward. I will blog soon on the waste water/sewage/septic topic that was also addressed.