ANAMOOSE - As the new director of the McHenry County Job Development Authority, Bonnie Helm would love to see former residents come back home.
It's an area of economic development that is personal to her. An Anamoose native, Helm left the area years ago only to return in 2010 to take an active role in her community.
"I love being back," she said. "Along with my parents, Anamoose gave me the tools and self-confidence to pursue my dreams, and now I think it is time to give back to the town and state I never forgot."
Jill Schramm/MDN • Bonnie Helm, director of the McHenry County Job Development Authority, hangs a poster at a Velva business Sept. 18 to advertise an upcoming meeting.
Helm's first project was initiating the planning for the 100th anniversary all-school reunion. Pleased with how that event went, she now is looking at a five-year school reunion that includes activities meant to entice alumni back home.
She also serves on the Anamoose City Council and as president of MainStreams Inc., also known as Save the Bank, which seeks to preserve the town's 1909 bank building. She chairs the Anamoose Housing Task Force and the Anamoose Planning & Zoning Task Force.
She became director of the JDA in September.
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Helm said she hadn't planned on applying when the position first opened. But she started thinking maybe she could do it after Alyce Heer of Anamoose urged her to consider it. Her inquiry into the position led to immediate hiring and training.
"She's very good at leading people," Heer said. "She's very organized. She knows what she wants to do and what she wants you to do. She's very good at delegating."
The Anamoose community has drawn on Helm's knowledge in grant writing and law and benefitted from her experiences in building remodeling, she said.
"She's a huge asset to the whole community," Heer said.
Helm grew up on a farm near Anamoose. She obtained a bachelor's degree in home economics education and a master's degree in counseling from North Dakota State University, Fargo. She also has a juris doctorate degree from Vermont Law School.
She has been employed at Page High School; Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, Iowa; South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D.; Brookings High School in South Dakota and the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
She was writing grants at the University of Wyoming when others began coming to her to get assistance with their own grant-writing. Assisting others led to doing region and national workshops. The next step in 1986 was to start her own business, B. Helm Consulting & Grantwriting Services, which she operated for more than 20 years. The business grew to employ more than 40 employees and independent contractors.
"What I loved most was the training and going out and teaching people how to do it," she said. One of her favorite aspects of her JDA position is meeting with people in the county.
"I am finding listening is really important," she said. "I like sitting down with people and hearing what they have to say."
Describing herself as naturally an introvert, Helm said, "This job is actually the opposite. It has me on the road all the time and meeting people all the time, and I am loving it."
Economic development is new ground for many of the smaller towns in the county, she said. She hopes to help them define how they want economic development to work in their communities and determine how to make things happen.
The JDA director is responsible for staying abreast of and addressing economic development issues in each of McHenry County's towns and their outlying farming communities. The director must work with state and local governmental agencies, community organizations, and other entities ranging from housing groups to schools and law enforcement.
In addition, Helm has been involved with Vision West ND in planning for the region's future.
Deb Nelson with DLN Consulting in Dickinson, which is managing Vision West ND, said participants like Helm are imperative to the project.
"She has contacts all over the county. She has contacts beyond the county, which is essential," Nelson said. "Bonnie is fairly assertive in what she does. Enough so that she can pull people together."
That was apparent when 20 people from across McHenry County attended a planning meeting, and a dozen participated in a steering committee, which Nelson said is a strong showing for a small county.
"They are going to have a good plan as a result," she said.
One of Helm's initial goals for the JDA has been to identify available properties and services in each of the towns in the county. Anamoose went through a process of identifying ownership and characteristics of property in and around the city, and Helm discovered how useful that was when the state sent out word of a prospective company looking for a certain type of property.
"That's the kind of information that - if we had it - I think there would be opportunities," she said. "My next goal is to get out there to the senior citizens. Those are the people who know what's worked in the past, and they make great volunteers. I think it's an untapped resource in terms of economic development."
She also would like the JDA to increase its focus on tourism, including historical tourism as well as hunting and fishing.
Helm sees a bright future for McHenry County as a place where people want to live. McHenry County's location near Minot and just out of the busy oil patch creates a natural draw that could be capitalized on if housing can be developed. The county's supply of vacant farmsteads presents a potential housing resource in instances where landowners are willing to sell, she said.
The small-town social scene can be difficult for newcomers to break into, but Helm has ideas for welcoming people as well.
"I am a creative thinker and I am a doer," Helm said.
She said leaving her business in Wyoming to be closer to family in Anamoose left her without the personal goals that had always made life interesting and kept her striving for more. Her job with the JDA has given her new purpose once again.
"Now I think I am back to 'This is what I want to do. I want to see this happen. I want to see that happen,'" she said. "I would just love to these little towns have a comeback."