It's a long way from Paris to the Rockefeller family offices in New York to the prairies of North Dakota.
But there is a French connection -- as well as a Rockefeller link -- to the development experiment going on in North Dakota's Mercer County, where strip coal mining is turning six ranch and farm communities into energay boom towns.
To avoid the problems of uncontrolled growth that have afficted such boom towns as Gillette and Rock Springs, Wyo. -- severe shortages of housing, schools, water and medical service, and social problems culminating in alcoholism, drug abuse and even murder -- Mercer County is trying a French model of community development.
The connection between Paris and Mercer County is a complex one, involving the U.S. Energy Department (financial backer of the experiment); Resource Planning Associates, an American consulting firm that has acted to import the French development model; and a new joint-venture corporation, headed by Warren Lindquist, veteran financial adviser to David Rockefeller. The new firm's name is SCETAM and its partners are Resource Planning Associates and a French quasi-public concern, known as SCET.
SCET's approach is to concentrate a critical amount of expert planning and finance on a major development project that requires close cooperation between business and government. This so-called "mixed economy" aproach may be particularly appropriate in developing such major resources as coal, where the stakes -- for the nation, and for the community where the mineral is mined -- are too important to be left either to business or to government.
That's a pretty sophisticated thought, and all the more so in a rural state like North Dakota, where the small towns are traditionally suspicious of each other, have rarely undertaken any kind of joint project with industry, and where part-time local officials could easily be hornswoggled by private developers. Mining companies, chiefly concerned with profits for distant stockholders, have already littered the West with the wrecks of towns they mined and plundered.
Mercer County, 75 miles northwest of the state capital at Bismarck, is typical of western areas undergoing energy development. Agriculture -- primarily the raising of hard spring wheat and cattle ranching -- has long been the dominant industry. In this decade, however, the escalating demand for electricity in metropolitan American has spurred fast expansion of Mercer County's coal mining. Three huge coal-fired power plants are already in operation. Five more, including the nation's first coal-gasification plant, are proposed.
As they tried to cope with the revolution going on around them, Mercer County officials found themselves "meetinged to death" and "studied to death" by the federal government, which conducted over 200 separate research projects in the area. In mid-1977, the Energy Department offered the county $600,000 for three years to develop a new countywide decision-making structure to reduce competitiveness and manage growth, along the liness of France's mixed-economy" ventures. The French model, after lengthy negotiations, became transformed into the Mercer County Energy Development Board, a 14-member organization of all the county commissioners, mayors and school-board presidents.
Though its powers are limited, the board has already scored some accomplishments that would be the envy of many a rural area. It was written the county's first zoning, subdivision and sewer-system regulations. It has gone through the laborious process of applying for millions of dollars in federal and state grants (and proven itself quite adept at the grantsmanship game).
"The energy development board has knocked down the animosity of the small towns," Stanton Mayor Robert Wetzel told my associate, Jerry Hagstrom. Ailsa Simonson, who distributes North Dakota's state coal-severance tax revenues to energy boom towns, said: "A lot of those county commissioners never had any heavier decisions to make than who would get a blacktop road. What impressed me is that the staff is knowledgeable but not pushy. They have made the taxpayers feel a part of the project."
The Mercer County board is now taking on some tougher tasks, including an attempt to attract industry to replace jobs available during the construction phase of the mines, thus avoiding the "boom and bust" cycle common to energy centers. Projects include making use of coal byproducts through such exotic possibilities as greenhouses using waste hat and fish farms using waste water.
Federal officials would like the energy board to assume local zoning and taxation powers and ask the state for bonding authority and eminent domain powers. The local officials, however, are wary of going that far. They rejected their fancy consultants' idea of creating an energy-efficient new town in the middle of nowhere, on the grounds that it would have "killed off" commerce in the existing towns. That capacity to counter outsiders' impractical ideas with a lusty "no" will be a necessary part of American application of the French development model. But the positive elements -- coordinating governments, applying hard-to-get technical skils, balancing the public welfare against industry needs -- could one day prove applicable well beyond the energy boom towns of the prairie.