Part 2: Growing pains, but big money

North Dakota’s oil boom stretched infrastructure to the breaking point. Rents have skyrocketed and crime is on the rise. But it also virtually ended unemployment and, for some, quadrupled wages. It’s the kind of boom that might be coming to the San Joaquin Valley.
While an oil boom brings jobs, it also brings a myriad of challenges. In North Dakota the biggest challenge was expansion, as Williston grew from a sleepy town of 12,000 to a boomtown of more than 40,000 virtually overnight.

Nearly everything Channel 17 reporter Katey Rusch saw in North Dakota was under construction, including roads schools, housing and even the oil fields themselves.

Ten years ago life in Williston was slow.

"I used to kiddingly say that Williston was a great place to retire," said Mayor Ward Koeser.

Traffic jams didn't exist.

"You used to be able to get across town in 10 minutes," said Barb Vondell, a Williston Resident.

And no one was a stranger.

"If you drove down the street you knew everyone that was passing you," said Shawn Wenko, Williston’s assistant director for economic development.

"You just had this lazy way of going about things," said Dee Colier, a Williston resident.

Then the oil boom hit western North Dakota.

"Now it's, 'Don't forget to lock your doors, deadbolt it and put your dogs inside.' Because someone is going to steal that," said Colier.

"If they are going to drill three or four wells, creating 300 to 400 jobs, they're going to do so relatively overnight," said Wenko.

It's a promising sign for the unemployed but for some, the change was devastating.

"You could probably walk down the street and find five people who are tremendously excited about what's happening and you could find five people who are heartbroken and upset," said Wenko.

But those broken hearts didn't stop Williston's population from tripling in three years from about 12,000 to 43,000.

"The Census Bureau over the last two years has said that Williston is the fastest growing micropolitan city in the country," said Williston Mayor Ward Koeser.
Thousands came from across the country looking for high paying jobs.

"I quadrupled my income," said Dante Pisanti, an oil worker from Arizona.

"I'm making, like, four times what I was making in Utah," said oil worker Austin Ewing.

"I had four jobs within 24 hours of looking," said Kirstie Wielkes, a waitress from California.

Those four jobs were what she described as "awesome" positions.

"Three, four hundred dollars a shift awesome," said Wielkes.

Even at McDonald's, starting pay is $17 an hour.

But with all the people, available housing disappeared.

"The city is not equipped to handle 43,000, 45,000 people," said Shawn Wenko of Williston Economic Development.

Rent skyrocketed.

"Literally Manhattan rates is what you were paying," said Wenko.

Rent for a two-bedroom apartment jumped from $500 a month to $3,000 a month in three years.

"If you didn't own your house before this, you were kind of SOL," said Colier, the long-time Williston resident.

This forced industry to hire temporary housing companies like Target Logistics to set up what some call "man camps" in western North Dakota.

"We house 1,038 people," said Karen Hunt, assistant general manager for Tioga Lodge. It’s a mini-city of mobile homes, all connected to adjoining hallways. "This is the largest crew camp in the United States."

"The idea with these types of facilities is they don't leave a big footprint," said Hunt.

They have gyms, entertainment and a continuous buffet of food.

"The 'Tioga 20' is the 20 pounds you gain when you get here and you find out you can eat 24 hours a day," said Hunt.

For those without company housing options are limited. Dennis Howton lives in his truck.

"I actually live in that during the week and then spend a night in a hotel on my day off and that's my life," said Howton.

Others live in trailers on the side of the road, but even that is expensive.

"Even if you have a trailer house that you moved to one of the newer court, it's over $700 a month," said Williston resident Barb Vondell.

But the high rents don't stop the new residents from making themselves at home. And that includes committing crimes.

"The Williston Police Department saw an increase in our crime rate across the board," said Detective Sgt. David Peterson of the Williston Police Department.

According to Williston Police, the number of calls for service tripled last year.

"I cannot say with that crime rate is out of line with the population growth," said Sgt. Peterson.

Accidents on the highways are also increasing, with the number of fatal crashes up 123 percent.

Schools find themselves in a jam.

"Every year we've grown an average 200 students since 2009," said Dr. Viola LaFontaine, Superintendent of the Williston School District.

This was a 43 percent increase in enrollment in 10 years, forcing the local to put up temporary classrooms, until it could invest millions of dollars in a new school.

"Before I came to Williston I couldn't even say million," LaFontaine said. "Now I just rattle off millions of dollars like nothing."

Teachers were also hired from out of state, like Teri Kelly from Chico.

"I've been out of California six months before and that's been it," said Kelly, a second grade teacher at McVay Elementary.

Kelly said she tried for years to get a job back home. Here it took her only three weeks.

Even the airport is overwhelmed.

"We've gone from an airport where we saw 10 aircraft a week to at least 10 aircraft a day if not 30 aircraft a day," said Steven Kjergaard, airport manager at the Williston Airport.

But four years into the boom, infrastructure is catching up with industry. Roads are widening in nearly every direction and newly built apartment dot the hillsides.

"We built I think about 1,500 apartments last year in Williston," said Williston Mayor Ward Koeser.

The question is, with all the challenges that come with an oil boom, should the San Joaquin Valley take the chance if given the opportunity?

"You just need someone in your city government to learn from what happened here," said Williston resident Barbara Vondell.

Bakersfield Geologist and California State University Bakersfield Professor Janice Gillespie lived in North Dakota for years.

"If you had a town the size of Bakersfield, it would be the biggest town in North Dakota by far," said Professor Gillespie.

She's confident the Central Valley is prepared.

"Compared to North Dakota Bakersfield has a much better infrastructure to handle an influx of people," said Professor Gillespie.

Williston's mayor said the Valley should embrace the growth.

"As a larger community you won't have near the impact as we did with 12,000 to 13,000 people," said Mayor Koeser.

That's because an oil boom could not only change the landscape but the economic future.

"This would bring a bunch of high paying jobs into the Valley," said Gillespie.

"Would you rather have 14 percent unemployment, or 0.7 percent?" said Wenko.
 
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