WESTHOPE Margo Helgerson sees truth in the Theodore Roosevelt quote that she displays on her computer at People's State Bank in Westhope, where she is head cashier.
"We cannot do great deeds unless we are willing to do the small things that make up the sum of greatness."
A lot of small things have added up in Westhope.
Jill Schramm/MDN •
Margo Helgerson sits in the library in the community portion of a hotel restored by the city.
"You don't think about it," said Helgerson, a community promoter who's served as Westhope's mayor for 23 years. "But when you start putting them together, it makes for something bigger."
Community members credit Helgerson's leadership for moving Westhope toward bigger things.
The Bottineau County town of about 500 people received the Northwest Area Foundation's "Great Strides" award in 2007 for its creativity and ingenuity in its business ideas. The award came with a $100,000 prize.
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Council member Jennie Lodoen said Helgerson goes out of her way to get involved in activities that ensure Westhope keeps up with the times and is on top of any economic opportunities.
"She's just a very, very, very supportive and progressive individual, for sure," Lodoen said.
Wayne Miller, council member for more than 20 years, said the city has benefited from Helgerson's management skills and ability to work with people. Although the council has final say, members trust her judgment, he said.
"She's been good to work with. That's why I stayed on this long," Miller said. Not only does the council have a good working relationship with her, but residents also find that her door is always open to listen to their ideas, he said.
Helgerson said she has enjoyed guiding her community as mayor.
"I have always had a good council to work with and that really makes a difference. They have always been a progressive council. They think ahead and they think about what's best for the community and the area. It makes it nice to be able to work with positive people. I like to surround myself with positive people," she said.
Approaching problems positively has enabled Westhope to maintain a grocery and establish a community center. Helgerson said the successful projects weren't without risk, and the decisions to undertake them weren't easy.
The grocery store had been closed for a year when Helgerson sat down with a friend in town to talk about what could be done to get it open. From that initial discussion, residents came on board with their support. Community investors each contributed start-up capital of $600, which they gained back in groceries over a year's time. A local resident has been managing the store since it re-opened a few years ago.
The city later decided to buy a former motel that had been damaged by fire rather than see the business closed and building razed. The city now operates the 16-unit Gateway Motel. It renovated the building to include city offices, a library and community center. With income from the motel and space rental for private functions, the facility largely has been self-supporting, Helgerson said.
Although it's worked out well, the council contemplated a long time and had to sell the community on the idea before buying the building. Helgerson spearheaded the project after she decided it was a necessity.
"You think of the building going away and this empty lot. To me, that didn't project a progressive community. This way, you still have this beautiful building, and we can utilize it for so much. You stick your neck out," she said.
The decision to go ahead with the Gateway building impressed the Northwest Area Foundation, which also looked at what the city had done with a clothing company called Deva Lifewear, the grocery and other businesses in awarding Westhope its "Great Strides" award.
Much of the prize money went into renovation of the Gateway building. The city also erected new city signs for its centennial and set up a low-interest business loan fund.
In addition, Westhope was the smallest community in the state to establish a Renaissance Zone at the time that it started a program. The zone has enabled several businesses to receive tax incentives to expand.
The town has made infrastructure improvements to its water and lagoon system and formed a housing authority to look into home construction. The tight housing market has eased somewhat so there are no current plans to build.
Looking to the future, Helgerson said, there's a need for a citywide street project. There's also some support in the community for a second try at passing a ballot measure for a city sales tax.
The city recently donated some of its "Great Strides" money to the park board for the town's latest project. A new pool is under construction to replace an older pool.
"You are kind of proud of your community so you keep trying to do things that will move you forward instead of backwards," Helgerson said.
Helgerson grew up in Landa and Westhope. She graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., and taught health and physical education for three years in Minnesota. Having worked summers at the bank, she returned to Westhope in 1970 after her mother, who then was head cashier, asked her to come on full-time because the bank needed more help.
Once back home, she quickly became involved in the community, first on the park board and with the Girl Scouts.
Helgerson said she's not one to sit around unless she can have a book in her hand because she loves to read.
Currently, she is involved with the Community Club, Country Club and Turtle Mountain Tourism Association. She volunteers a week each summer for the Medora Foundation, working various jobs for the foundation in Medora.
Helgerson is past chairwoman of Northwest Venture Communities, having served eight years on the board. She has served on the Bottineau County Advisory Board, the Westhope's Renaissance Zone Committee and Westhope's Economic Development Board. She chaired the Westhope Centennial Committee in 2004 and the All-School Reunion Committees in 1989 and 1997. She is a past president of the Sakakawea group of the National Association of Bank Women.
Helgerson received the 2009 Souris Basin Planning Council's Basil O'Connell Community Leadership Award earlier this year. She served 12 years on the Souris Basin Planning Council and is chairwoman of the Upper Dakota Regional Resource Conservation and Development.
"She's a recognized leader on our board," said Greg Hagen said, director of Souris Basin Planning Council, Minot. "She has been a tireless supporter of everything that goes on in Westhope, from city government to volunteer work to working with the businesses. She has been a tremendous asset to the city of Westhope."