NORTH DAKOTA Trying to cope with oil boomWorkers find that prosperity has its price
Published: 2/17/13 @ 12:00
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
WATFORD CITY, N.D.
His tan overalls splattered with oil field mud, 41-year-old trucker Scott Brevig sat next to his semitrailer truck inside a rented machine shop and cracked open a Full Throttle energy drink. It was 9:45 p.m.
Brevig still had to fix a leak under the hood before he could huddle to sleep in a camper where he lives with his fiancee, housing too scarce and expensive in this booming region.
A former Anoka, Minn., painting contractor, Brevig took his car to the shop for repairs back home. Here, he’s had to figure out how to fix his own giant diesel machines because local shops are overloaded. “There’s no resources here,” he said, shrugging.
But Brevig’s enthusiasm trumps his exhaustion. With an economy fueled by new oil-drilling techniques, “It’s a land of opportunity, by all means,” he said. “You can grow into whatever you want here.”
The Brevigs of the world are flocking to North Dakota in droves, modern frontiersmen transforming this recently dying flyover land into the fastest-growing state in the nation, according to the Census Bureau. Storefront signs scream “now hiring.” Pickups and semis jam long stretches of two-lane highways. Backhoes claw the ground even in frozen January. Recreational vehicles occupy former farm fields next to row upon row of boxlike modular living pods.
In Williston, the epicenter of the growth, the hospital opened a new birthing center, workers are building a giant new rec center and students are overflowing in a school that once sat empty. Civic leaders have been approving building permits and hiring police and teachers and nearly every kind of government worker.
“We really can’t grow fast enough,” said Shawn Wenko, assistant director of economic development for the city of Williston. But amid the boundless opportunity, he conceded: “I’d be lying if I said it was all roses out here.”
Lines at restaurants and stores are often frustratingly long, with few workers willing to take service jobs when more lucrative oil industry work is available. Rents have skyrocketed. With mostly men flooding into town to work, women hesitate to go out alone at night. There are more bar fights. Young parents can’t find day care for their kids.
Easing his sport-utility vehicle through vast fields of new construction, Wenko likened life on the booming prairie to a kitchen remodel: “It’s pretty stressful right now,” he said. “You’re washing your dishes in the bathtub and you’re cooking on a hot plate ... When the remodel is done, it’s gonna be a pretty nice kitchen. And that’s the way we feel with Williston.”
Twelve years ago, Williston’s population stood at a little more than 12,500 people. Now, officials there estimate the town services 38,000 on a daily basis, based partly on water and sewer use. They expect it could hit 50,000 by 2017.
North Dakota’s population grew 2.2 percent to 699,628 in the year ending July 1, according to the Census Bureau. Many newcomers are from Minnesota. For years, more people moved from North Dakota to Minnesota than vice versa. That trend has changed in recent years, with North Dakota gaining approximately 4,500 to 6,500 Minnesotans each year between 2009 and 2011.
Housing is the region’s biggest problem. Most apartments and extended-stay hotels command rents that only those with lucrative oil field jobs can afford — not government or retail jobs.
On a large flashing sign next to the highway, the Value Place hotel advertised rates of $699.99 a week, well above rates for its other hotels around the country. Some people living in campers said they pay RV park owners $800 a month to park and hook up to water and sewer. Classified ads in the local Shopper listed a furnished two-bedroom apartment for $2,200. A trailer with a queen bedroom listed for $1,650 a month.
Though some longtime residents are getting big mineral payments from the oil, others struggle to continue living there, even though wages are going up, too.
Gordon Weyrauch, manager of Williston Home & Lumber, said it’s hard to keep good employees even at $16 an hour: “Seems like when you get somebody that’s really good, there’s always another company stealing them away.”
A sign outside the local Walmart advertises starting wages of $17 an hour.