Oil Boomtown Williston, N.D., Looks for a Stable Future
WILLISTON, N.D.—This oil boomtown, known for its brawling roughnecks and their spare living conditions, is starting to smooth off its rough edges. But not all of them.
Muddy pickup trucks still jam the streets, but they drive past recent additions to town, including more than a dozen new restaurants like Buffalo Wild Wings. Subdivisions are springing up along the hills and a $73 million recreation center opened last weekend.
Williston is working to transform itself into a stable community built for a long future, but remnants of the scrappy oil town remain. Thousands of workers still crowd into so-called man camps. Seedy taverns dot the map.
"It's a boomtown—that's a fact of life," said Mayor Ward Koeser, "but I believe this will become a premier town in North Dakota."
His optimism rests within the vast Bakken shale formation that has put North Dakota on the nation's energy map. Since 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that just 450 million of an estimated 7.4 billion barrels of oil in the Bakken and related Three Forks formations have been extracted using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and other techniques.
Other numbers justify his optimism. The Williston area's resident population stood at 29,595 in July 2013, up 10.7% from the previous year, making it the U.S.'s fastest-growing micropolitan area, defined as those with 10,000 to 49,999 people, according to U.S. Census estimates released last week. The city's operating budget hit nearly $81 million in 2013, up from about $48 million in 2010. And the city issued 1,665 building permits in 2013, compared to 610 in 2010, according to the city's office of economic development.
Beneath the frenzy, there are signs of a new normal.
The city put a moratorium on permits for the trailer-park-like man camps last year as officials push for workers to move into permanent housing and as new apartment buildings opened. Officials also have banned the camper vans that once lined the streets and jammed the lot of the local Wal-Mart, saying they no longer can serve as de facto homes in city limits.
And a sign near the entrance to the Wal-Mart offers $17 an hour for cashiers and stock clerks, above what the retailer typically pays entry-level workers. It is one way the store has cut down on what locals said were hourlong lines in the recent past. During the boom, the company had to bring in staff from nearby stores and even other states, but it has since caught up with local hires, said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan.
Jay Jones, a 25-year-old pipe fitter from Virginia, arrived in Williston last July in his 1993 Buick Century with a makeshift bed he installed in place of the back seats. He stayed in his car until October, when temperatures started to drop. He works in the oil fields here and finally rented a bedroom after being offered a bargain rate through someone he met here.
"I had no problem living in my car," he said, though others had begun to look askance. "It's starting to become less socially acceptable as there's clearly more places available."
Shawn Wenko of the Williston Economic Development department. Kevin Cederstrom for The Wall Street Journal
City leaders talk with pride about increased lodging, restaurants and the new rec center. Funded through a 1% city sales tax, the center boasts water slides and basketball courts that city leaders hope will anchor families to the town.
Mr. Koeser took office as mayor in 1994 when Williston was still hungover from the oil boom and bust of the 1980s. Back then, the city spent with little caution, banking on an influx of people who never came. It helped finance building plots with loans to developers, some of whom abandoned the projects, leaving the city with about $28 million in debt that was paid off through taxes.
Now, developers are responsible for installing sewers and sidewalks right away without city financing. That raises the immediate costs of development but hasn't scared off deep-pocketed investors like private-equity firm KKR & Co., which says it plans to spend up to $150 million to develop a 164-acre residential community.
Joseph Edman's new house, like others in the quick-growing developments, doesn't show up on some GPS maps. He came here to open a branch office for a construction company, but he soon decided to go his own way. "It wasn't the original intent, but the opportunity presented itself," he said. "We're just getting started, and there's going to be challenges, but I'm optimistic."
Mr. Edman said he thinks home builders like him can bank on five or 10 years of certain business. "It's transitioning into a rapid-growth economy rather than a boom."
Still, others say they are skeptical that things will play out so smoothly.
"Communities always have these grandiose plans," said Rex Byerly, a longtime resident and former North Dakota state legislator who worries about the construction binge. "I hope they're right, but all these people running around with hope in their hearts isn't going to make it so."
Millions of barrels of oil are rolling out of North Dakota each year and thousands of job-hungry Americans are rolling in, drawn to lucrative oil jobs. But the state faces a challenge: How much do you build when an oil boom may one day bust?
Despite all the change, the notorious parts of Williston persist. At DK's Lounge and Casino, oil-rig worker Todd Latterner sat sipping a beer on a recent night. He works in nearby Crosby, N.D., and said that he usually steers clear of Williston and its rough crowds.
Almost on cue, a heavily tattooed customer stumbled over and began spouting expletives in Mr. Latterner's face until he was escorted out by a bouncer.
"You got testosterone, an overabundance of money and nowhere to spend it," Mr. Latterner said. "So you've got fights."
Still, a wave of professionals have hope in the city's prospects and are moving to town and putting down roots. These forces for stability include doctors at the fast-growing hospital, engineers working for the oil companies and lawyers.
Podiatrist Guy Slann moved his practice here last August from Florida, and plans to relocate permanently when his children finish high school. For now, he goes back home for long weekends, but he said that the temporary separation is worth it.
"It's underserved and has a booming economy. How many places are there like that?" Dr. Slann asked. "Florida will be just fine without another podiatrist."
Meanwhile, the grand opening of the Williston Area Recreation Center took place last weekend, with lemonade and cake served. Family memberships are now available.