North Dakota struggles to cope with its oil-boom prosperity

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 28, 2013 - 12:22 PM

The oil boom has meant explosive growth for North Dakota, but life there can be frustrating and lonely, as well as lucrative.

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 fiancée, housing too scarce and expensive in this booming region.

A former Anoka 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 box-like modular living pods.

In Williston, the epicenter of the growth, the local 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."

High pay, high rent

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 Wal-Mart advertises starting wages of $17 an hour.

Some desperate employers are acting as landlords.

The new Love's truck stop built a small yellow apartment building next-door for employees. The Williams County government erected an apartment building to offer new county workers an affordable place to live.

Long lines, frustration

Locals complain that daily life has changed, too. They can't run an errand quickly anymore. The area's small towns feel more like urban centers.

About 45 miles south of Williston, Watford City has a 2010 census population of 1,700, but local officials estimate it is serving 8,000 to 10,000, including trailers that have packed into RV parks. License plates traversing the town's main street range from California to Texas to New York. "When you walked in the grocery store, you used to know everybody," longtime resident Vonnie Johnsrud said.

She stood in a slow-moving line at the post office last week to pick up mail-ordered blue jeans over her lunch break. "This is like road rage. Totally frustrating," she said, to the knowing nods of mostly strangers around her.

When she finally reached the front, her lunch break over, the clerk found another small package, but no jeans.

"I tracked it online. It's here," Johnsrud said, her voice spilling with anger.

"It's here, but it's not on the shelf. We haven't inventoried yet," came the helpless reply. "It's in a big box full of 200 other packages."

"I'm not gonna wait in line another hour tomorrow!" Johnsrud snipped before storming toward the door.

Paying a price

While towns are bustling, the lucrative life can be lonely.

Erik Morin, of Oscoda, Mich., sat in a Watford City laundromat on a day off recently, waiting for his clothes to dry and taking calls from his teenage children and wife.

Bankrupt after he was laid off from General Motors, he now works overtime six days a week and pays $600 a month to live in a sparse crew camp.

He had planned to stay a few months, but 1 1/2 years later, he's still there because "a hundred grand a year is kind of addictive."

But Morin, 34, knows he's paying a price. His 15-year-old daughter complained over the phone that her mom wouldn't let her go to a wrestling match. Then his wife called, asking him to talk to the girl. "I'm trying to mediate that from 1,500 miles away," he said.

"I'm watching my kids grow up in pictures," he said, adding that his family visited over the summer but didn't like it. "Every time I go home, it's sooo hard to come back."

Across town, three single men gulped bar food and beer at Outsiders Bar & Grill, bemoaning the lack of women in the area.

"Any guy in his 20s wishes there was more women," said Brett Rowley, 23, of Nebraska.

"Companionship would make a big difference," agreed 26-year-old Brandon Bernhard of Iowa.

They hope to put up to $100,000 in the bank annually working long hours as apprentice electricians, but all three said they plan to go back home.

There's not much to do besides drink, they complained. They've seen workers on drugs. One guy offered them his girlfriend for sex for $150, they said.

"I definitely don't plan to settle here," Rowley said. "I'll go home and start my life then."

Arriving without a plan

Many come to North Dakota without a plan for where they'll live or work, hoping to earn big money at least temporarily.

Locals worry that too many of them have questionable backgrounds and can't get jobs back home.

Crime rates have gone up with the population, police said: Calls for service in Williston more than doubled in three years, ending with 15,954 calls in 2011.

Detective David Peterson said many companies do background checks on workers they hire. "I think there are a lot of hard-working individuals out here that are trying to save their homes and save their families in other parts of the nation," he said.

Concordia Lutheran Church Pastor L. Jay Reinke has been allowing job-seeking newcomers to sleep on cots in the church hall -- raising concerns even in his congregation.

Dressed in jeans, Reinke welcomed "overnighters" filing into the fellowship hall at 8:30 p.m. one recent night.

"I've always favored the underdog," Reinke said. "If I was in their spot, I don't know what I would do, really. ... They're men looking for a job."

Lorenzo Harris walked in with a friend after driving his 1996 Ford Escort from the Twin Cities. Harris said he needed work after he was laid off at a catalogue company and bills piled up.

"My wife didn't like the fact that I was leaving, but you gotta do what you gotta do," said the 43-year-old. "Mount Rushmore is here, right?"

Concordia limits guests to 30 each night, with Reinke occasionally allowing one or two extra to sleep at his house. That night, he looked down at a list and shook his head.

"Gonna have to go to Plan B tonight," he quietly told Harris and his friend. "I'm sorry."

Harris, 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, nodded and sighed. "Ain't gonna be the first time I slept in the car," he said.

Still trucking

Though their four years in North Dakota have been lucrative, Brevig and his longtime fiancée aren't sure how long they'll stay.

They lived in their truck for a few months, with him carrying about $90,000 debt.

He has since paid cash for four more trucks, put money in savings and hired a small crew of fellow Minnesotans, including his fiancée's son and nephew, he said. They live in campers and trucks, too, though Brevig is adding a shower and bunks to the heated repair shed.

Brevig said he knows living there is hard for everyone in his company.

"She'd pack up and leave tomorrow," he said, nodding toward his fiancée. "I can't pass up the opportunities. ... There's money to be made."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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  • 25,500

    Estimated increase in number of people served by Williston, N.D. between 2000 and 2012.

    $2,200/mo.

    Listed rent for a furnished 2-bedroom apartment in Williston. A trailer with a queen bedroom listed for $1,650.

    10,000

    Estimated number of people served in Watford City, which had a 2010 census population of 1,700.

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