By Steven Pedersen, Associate Director and Founder of CNATCA
In the early years of the internet, when the Web was still being woven, the Central North American Trade Corridor Association and Otter Tail Power, two very diverse organizations, and one man joined together to create a unique partnership, with repercussions that would be felt up and down the trade corridor. What triggered this partnership was the recognition that communities needed a viable method of marketing themselves, since local newspapers that had been their voice for decades were either losing readership or already disappearing. I remember vividly, when we initially approached Otter Tail Power it took very little convincing to gain their support for our initiative. Orlin Hanson, long-time member of CNATCA and North Dakota rancher, became the driving force that would ultimately take the project online.
The initial agreement was for Otter Tail Power to give each of its communities in North Dakota 250 dollars towards developing a community website, with a set amount of $15,000 (or 60 communities) they would support. Otter Tail recognized that this was not only a good public relations strategy, but also a way to breathe new life into their communities. It was then CNACTCA’s job to visit the communities and convince them to participate in this unique partnership. At the time, reaching out to 60 communities presented a major logistical hurdle, but thanks to the dedication of Orlin Hanson, CNATCA accomplished this goal in approximately 18 months. Orlin’s biggest challenge was that he would normally have to sit through entire city council meetings for any decisions to be made, making it hard to attend more than one a night. The other challenge was that Orlin lived in Sherwood, North Dakota, and on many nights he had to travel clear across the state to discuss the advantages of developing community websites. It was not out of the ordinary for Orlin to travel 500 miles just to espouse the value of the internet. And, it should be known, Orlin was in his early 70s when he made this commitment to reach the many Otter Tail communities. This was a challenge that a person half his age would have walked away from. But the thing about Orlin was he liked challenges—and technology. When computers first came out, he was one of the first people to buy one.
Orlin’s early love of technology was perhaps a bit unusual given that he was a cowboy at heart, but he understood our future would be in technology. He not only marketed the internet to Otter Tail communities, but wherever he went he promoted its use. I believe he was responsible for well over 200 different entities developing websites under the umbrella of the original CNATCA site. (The site eventually hosted over 500 entities.) Through this relationship, the multitude and diversity of sites directed traffic to each other, creating one large community similar to a single chamber of commerce for the entire corridor. Communities in Texas, for example, brought internet traffic to communities as far away as Alberta!
These days, it’s unusual for even the smallest communities not to have a website, but twenty years ago communities with websites were rare. Some communities of only a few hundred people had sites earlier than much larger communities thanks to Otter Tail’s support. The mayor of Winnipeg at the time stated that she had never seen a site where you could find everything under one large umbrella like you could on tradecorridor.com (the original CNATCA website). Keep in mind, these were the days before Amazon, and each entity represented a community that was very much flesh and blood—and heart. That original site facilitated the sale of everything from buffalo meat to used car parts, in addition to promoting communities and organizations across the Heartlands. I believe that many of the original websites that were developed via this effort probably still exist in some form or another. Today, of course, many more sites exist, but how many people visit them, or even know they’re there for that matter? I’ve looked at site guest books that haven’t received comments for months at a time. What good is a website if know one knows it exists?
I believe this effort to get rural communities online was one CNATCA’s greatest accomplishments to date, but it couldn’t have been done without that first partnership with Otter Tail Power and a man who wasn’t afraid of a challenge. Moreover, I believe such an unusual marriage of a non-profit, a power cooperative and a handful of dedicated individuals can repeat this success story through the newly revived CNATCA website, www.cnatca.com. If you’re not already a member of the organization, we’d love for you to consider it. Our vision is to recreate that early cooperative and beneficial chamber-like relationship throughout the region. Connecting different business, community, and tourism entities through our site is just one benefit of working with future neighbors and friends that you will find through CNATCA membership. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy, and if we’re not willing to accept the challenge we can’t expect to reap the rewards. I hope that you join us in this challenge much as Orlin Hanson did many years ago to create a new Pathway to Progress, from northern Canada all the way down to Mexico.