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Enjoying a reversal of fortune: Despite high waters at lake, the city of Devils Lake is booming

(Jenna Watson / Forum News Service) Chris Shattuck, an employee of Skiles Custom Builders, based in Fenton, Mich., works Tuesday on one of many houses being built in Agassiz Circle, which will include 24 duplexes on the east side of Devils Lake, N.D.1 / 3
(Jenna Watson / Forum News Service) A new Butler Machinery agricultural equipment sales and service branch just west of Devils Lake is being built, one of many thriving companies that were able to find success in Devils Lake as a benefit of the dike system and lake containment methods.2 / 3
(Jenna Watson / Forum News Service) Chris Schilken, executive director at Forward Devils Lake, stands outside the future site of the Applebee's being built in town. The restaurant is one of several businesses that will be able to thrive thanks to the lake's containment and the town's development efforts.3 / 3

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. -- Two or three years ago, steady streams of heavy trucks and other construction vehicles snarled traffic in and around the lake as workers scrambled to raise roads and expand the levee protecting the city from rising waters.

City officials at one point considered relocating portions of the city as the two-decade-old flood emergency dragged on.

Today, while construction continues, those snarls largely have turned to smiles. The city of Devils Lake is booming.

A new big-box store, restaurant, hotel and manufacturer are coming, as are more homes. The city is also considering the construction of a new convention and wellness center.

"It's not crazy growth like in the Oil Patch of western North Dakota. It's growth in a reasonable way," said Chris Schilken, executive director for the past five years of Forward Devils Lake, the local economic development corporation.

"In 2008, we said Devils Lake is set up perfect, with its location along Highway 2 and with good infrastructure. There's room to grow," he said. "And we're seeing it happen."

"The lake has been an economic barometer of the community," said Rick LaFleur, who is developing a housing subdivision called Agassiz Circle.

"Before, there were some issues that could stifle your future," he said. "But Devils Lake now is fully protected as a city. We have a community where you can plan for growth now."

Commercial growth

The city's attention in recent years has been commanded by the flood fight, which has cost more than $1.5 billion throughout the Devils Lake Basin. The lake has risen more than 31 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993, reaching a record elevation of 1,454.3 feet in 2011. The lake currently is at about 1,453.4 feet.

The final pieces of the flood protection infrastructure are nearing completion.

"The dike, at one point, was a hindrance to attracting business. How comfortable are you behind a dike? But that seems to be going away," said Rick Anderson, recently retired executive director of North Central Planning Council, a regional economic development organization.

Here's a sample of commercial and other public construction projects underway or planned:

-- A 120,000-square-foot Walmart Supercenter is in the early stages of construction along U.S. Highway 2, with completion expected in 2014.

-- A new Applebee's restaurant is under construction along the highway.

-- A 60-room Sleep Inn is under construction across the street from the new Walmart. Officials already are talking about expanding.

-- Ultra Green, a manufacturer of biodegradable food containers from wheat straw, is under construction in the former Noodles by Leonardo pasta plant. Officials expect to employ about 100 by the end of the year and 300 to 350 within three to five years.

-- Butler Machinery, a dealer of Caterpillar heavy equipment, is building a new agricultural equipment sales and service branch just west of the city.

That follows 2012, which saw construction of a High Plains Implement dealership, a $10 million expansion of Altru Clinic, a new Lake Chevrolet building downtown and a major addition to Summers Manufacturing, an agricultural equipment builder and dealer.

The city recently purchased 130 acres of land along the BNSF railroad tracks just west of the city for a new industrial development.

"That's going to be a big deal in Devils Lake in the future," Schilken said.

Housing demand

It's not just commercial and industrial construction.

Some 40 to 50 housing units were built in the city in 2012. By the end of this year, that number will grow to at least 100, with more planned next year.

A couple of local developers are working on rental housing projects on the city's south side.

The second phase of Highland Park Estates, a housing subdivision on the north side, also is being developed.

Another subdivision, Agassiz Circle, which will include 24 duplexes, is under development on the east side of the city.

"We're approaching about $20 million in building permits this year. That's above anything we've had before," Mayor Dick Johnson said. "I sure couldn't imagine five years ago that this would be happening."

That total does not include the Walmart Supercenter.

Taxable sales and sales tax collections increased by nearly 25 percent between 2009 and 2012, according to Forward Devils Lake.

"There must be a lot of confidence. Five years ago, I was concerned about it going the other way," Anderson said.

Convention center

Planning for a new convention center is in high gear, according to Johnson.

Community leaders are looking at a facility that can handle groups of 300 to 500.

The complex likely would include a wellness center and perhaps a walking track, Johnson said. "Wellness center seems to be the buzzword with the success of the Grand Forks wellness center and in other communities. We want something for all people in the community, youths, seniors and people in between. There's got to be something for the average citizen in town, something the citizens can use for free or for a very reasonable fee."

Officials expect the project to be financed, at least in part, by a city sales tax. Once the final design is completed, the city will place the project and accompanying sales tax increase on the ballot.

While that could happen as early as November, the election more likely will be next June.

Project officials already have heard from more than one developer interested in a hotel being part of the convention center project.

"It's really pretty exciting," Johnson said, "a far cry from what we were dealing with just a few years ago."

The Walmart Supercenter and the proposed convention and wellness center also could expand the Devils Lake business community's reach, Anderson said.

New Rockford residents may choose to shop in Devils Lake rather than Jamestown, and people living as far east as Lakota may make fewer trips to Grand Forks, he said.

New Rockford is 60 miles from Jamestown and 40 miles from Devils Lake. Jamestown, with about 15,400 residents, is about twice as large as Devils Lake.

Lakota, which is 60 miles west of Grand Forks, is just 30 miles from Devils Lake.

Rural areas

While the city of Devils Lake appears to be rebounding well, leaders agree more must be done to help rural residents, many of whom are still dealing with serious water issues.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple made that point in a meeting in Devils Lake in late July.

"We've got to get some help for the farmers, get land back into production," Johnson said.

"We want the ag community to be sustainable and profitable," LaFleur added, "and we can't rest until that's accomplished."