Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
It's bittersweet in Boomtown
North Dakota oil capital shows strains -- and gender imbalance
WILLISTON, N.D. -- In a NASA satellite image taken 824 kilometres above the Earth, northwestern North Dakota -- one of the least populous corners of the continent -- is illuminated by what appear to be 2,000 tiny campfires.
Some of those points of light are actual fires: the natural gas flares of the Bakken oilfields, which have turbocharged North Dakota's economy and turned Manitoba's southern neighbour into the second-biggest oil producer in the U.S., following only Texas.
Most of that light, however, is emitted by oil-drilling operations and temporary tracts of housing in and around once-sleepy agricultural centres such as New Town, Dickenson, Watford City and Williston, the latter the biggest boom town of them all.
Thanks to the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing -- a technological combination that coaxes crude oil out of the Bakken shale -- the number of people living in and around Williston has more than doubled over the past three years, jumping from 14,700 in 2010 to an estimated 33,000 this year, The Associated Press reported earlier this month.
Williston is now the fastest-growing U.S. city with a population between 10,000 and 50,000 people -- to the continued amazement of longtime residents of what was once just another North Dakota farming town.
"There are so many more people and it's grown so fast, it's hard to greet that new neighbour, because in effect you have 10 new neighbours," said Brent Bogar, the Williston city commissioner responsible for building, planning and the water-and-sewer system ("all the crazy stuff," he said) in a city that's officially embraced the title of Boom-town U.S.A.
In the 1980s, when an earlier oil bust led property owners to walk away from long-term infrastructure-funding commitments, Williston faced bankruptcy. This time around, the city has required developers to bear most of the servicing costs of the city's massive expansion. The oil-rich State of North Dakota, which sported a nearly $4-billion surplus last year, is also paying a chunk of the tab.
But this relatively rosy financial picture does not alleviate all problems associated with rapid growth. A combination of heavy oil-truck traffic, a $100-million road-improvement blitz and new-building construction in almost every corner of the city has resulted in heavy congestion along the West Dakota Parkway and other major thoroughfares.
A shortage of living quarters for oil workers has led to a sprawling array of temporary housing complexes on the outskirts of the city -- some of them derisively dubbed "man camps" -- as well as a nascent homelessness problem.
And the presence of a large number of transient workers, the vast majority of them male, has led to a gender imbalance. The presence of so many young, single men has made the full-sized pickup truck Williston's unofficial vehicle.
And the inability of these men to actually pick up women has famously benefitted the local strip clubs, where dancers routinely make $500 or more a night in tips, the New York Times reported earlier this year.
In April, the city temporarily suspended the liquor licences of two strip clubs after complaints about noise, alcohol consumption and fights outside the establishments, the Williston Herald reported. Police had been making two to four visits per night to the clubs.
But aside from a few downtown blocks adjacent those clubs, new and old residents alike insist Williston has not become a dangerous place.
Chase Montoya, who moved to Williston last fall, said he was much more concerned about his wife Kelly walking around at night in their former home of Greeley, Colo. The couple and their three young children now live in an oil-company-owned housing development west of Williston, on Highway 2.
"It's nice. There are a lot of families there. It's not a man camp," said Kelly Montoya, whose primary complaint about Williston is the transient mentality of other newcomers. "They're not committed to this town. A lot of people are just here for the year or the warm part of the year."
Williston is only marginally warmer than Winnipeg. Some migrants have flocked to the city hoping to find a job, attracted by the boom and North Dakota's low unemployment rate, but find themselves caught in a housing catch 22.
People without jobs in Williston routinely can't find anywhere to live -- and homeless people won't find jobs. "If you don't have an address, you can't have a job," said Josh Kringen of MonDak Motorsports, which sells recreational vehicles. "We get a ton of applications, but we can only provide so much housing."
Some Williston employers have actually bought homes and apartment blocks to house their workers. The city itself owns one of these blocks, offering rental terms that help cut down on worker turnover: If you quit your city job, you lose your apartment, Bogar said.
Still, reports of homelessness have emerged. Some involve workers living out of their cars. Kringen said his shop was forced to evict homeless people from its back lane, where wooden crates were used as fuel in campfires, where the residents left behind the butchered remains of rabbits.
The Williston housing crunch, however, appears to be easing with the construction of apartment blocks and hotels. The growth is expected to level off once the pace of drilling new wells slows. Bogar expects the city's population to level off around 40,000 people, as mature wells need fewer workers to maintain.
After all, the memory of Williston's last oil bust is only 30 years old. Long-time residents appear unwilling to believe the latest boom will last forever.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2013 A3
Updated on Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 6:24 AM CDT: Replaces photo
11:24 AM: Adds NASA photo.
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