Flares burn off excess natural gas from oil well sites. 

Joshua Komer, Forum News Service

WILLISTON — It was a quiet afternoon in a downtown Williston art store.

A passerby might quickly recognize the point of the QuickDraw Art Studio by the decorative brushes with paint-dipped bristles that hang in front windows. Once inside, one would find supplies lining the walls and easels standing at the ready in the center of the main room, waiting for students to sit before them.

Watercolors and acrylics might be an unexpected find in a place that gained international attention — and sometimes infamy — as an oil-fueled boomtown, but shop owner Melissa Krause was optimistic behind the till.

“We’ve been open for three weeks now,” Krause said, looking around a store that, not long ago, stood as an empty shell. “It still smells fresh in here.”

Like many who now live in Williston, Krause is a transplant, brought to northwest North Dakota by the promise of lucrative work in a hot economic landscape. Today, some two years after plunging oil prices slowed the frantic pace of life in the state’s oil patch, she’s part of a new class of business owners taking root in what many in town describe as a city transformed, a place that’s now striving to capitalize on mineral wealth while fostering a more family-friendly community.

New roots

Krause, who is originally from Milwaukee, never worked in the oil field, but she did spend two of her five years in town as a journalist at the local newspaper, the Williston Herald. She says that work introduced her to people from other parts of the country who had flocked to the patch seeking new prospects much as she had.

Over time, she says she “felt I started to embody all those hopes and dreams of what brought them here, to bring them to stay, and what they wanted it to be.”

The idea for an art studio and store gradually took root, led her to approach the Williston Economic Development office and resulted in the store she operates today.

Dreams aside, she cites continually rising local birth rates and public school enrollments as among the tangible factors that encouraged her to open. Looking back, she doesn’t think her shop would have been viable in Williston at her arrival during the boom.

“I guess back then it was a large male population that worked an obscene amount of hours,” Krause said. “Their time off would have been spent sleeping or maybe at a bar, so I don’t think this place would have survived, not until the population switched out from them to the workers who decided to stay and bring up their families and their wives.”

No bust

The booms of a cyclical commodity such as oil and gas are typically followed by a corresponding bust. That term is used to describe current conditions in the patch by those elsewhere in North Dakota, including on the peripheries of the main producing region. In Williston, though, the label is subject to debate.

“I can’t say it was a bust, not by any means,” said Kim Wenko, the owner of clothing boutique Mode located a few doors down from Krause’s shop.

Wenko has lived in Williston for about nine years, and admits readily that her knowledge of the place is influenced in part by her marriage to the city’s head of economic development, Shawn Wenko, as well as by the fact that her partner in the store is a member of the City Commission. Still, her assessment of overall economic conditions is largely driven by her personal experience in a town she says has grown dramatically over her near-decade of residency.

“When I moved here, you could eat out at Applebee’s,” and that was about it, Wenko says. “Now there’s like 15 new restaurants” and counting.

Tarren Rehak, a lifelong Willistonian and a local schoolteacher, was shopping in the boutique that day — and, coincidentally, had worked at that Applebee’s when she was younger. She quickly backed up Wenko’s description of the gains made during the boom and, thus far, how much of them had stuck.

“I still have 29 kindergartners. It’s the biggest class size I’ve ever had,” Rehak said.

Both women believed things had probably slowed in town since the height of the boom. Neither thought activity had crashed, though they did say things felt different in town these days.

“I’d say the rough and tough are gone,” Rehak said. “You don’t see as much crime, you don’t see people tenting it in the parks.”

Wenko attributed a lot of that to a more mature oil field staffed by more experienced workers who focused less on drilling, more on keeping up production. She also thought the city had shored up its services to the point where bustling industrial activity could now coexist with a more peaceful life in town.

“It’s like, as the infrastructure has picked up, it’s just gotten better,” Wenko said, pointing to things like new water systems and better roads, including a truck bypass intended to reroute heavy traffic out of domestic corridors.

Dayna Martin, who moved about four years ago to Williston from Portland, Ore., and whose husband is a pastor at a local church, offered this as she checked out at the boutique.

“As soon as the boom died down, then kids could ride their bikes everywhere,” Martin said. “It’s been super. My kids love it.”

Fresh starts

Safer public streets are one sign of progress in a city that’s grown from about 12,000 in 2005 to an estimated 32,000-35,000 today. For Amy Krueger, head of the Williston Convention and Visitors Bureau, things like that can help do away with what can be a prevailing image of the city as a dangerous boomtown.

But there’s more to it than that. Besides adding more attractions like good roads, the boom also allowed the city to build up its base of recreational offerings. Krueger lists the Williston Area Recreation Center, a popular spot known by locals as the ARC, as a boom-era amenity with the potential to host destination athletic events such as track and swim meets. Thanks to its rapid growth, Williston now has a new clay shooting range that’s already been used for state tournament matches. And in keeping with fitness trends, the city also began hosting its first obstacle-lined 5K race, the Bakken X Trek, which is now in its third year.

“All the things we were never able to capture on before, we’re now able to capture on,” Krueger said. For instance, she says, the town never before had its own pumpkin patch for families to visit in autumn. That changed during the boom with the opening of Dark Acres, a patch that also features a haunted house for Halloween.

Before the boom years, Krueger said, families had to leave town to find those amenities aimed at increasing quality of life. Now, they can get them in Williston.

“It’s enabled us to be a bigger city and a new community,” she said of the boom.

That expansion didn’t come without growing pains, and it’s easy to find stories in Williston about the often uncomfortable pace at which the oil boom galloped along.

Still, for those like Krause and possibly for the city itself, the boom offered a chance at a fresh start.

“When I got here, I felt for the first time that I wouldn’t be living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I think that’s why a lot of people found solace in Williston, because it was the first time they had the opportunity to do something better. And a lot of them did — a lot of them are opening businesses, a lot of them are raising young families. For whatever people can say about this place, I think it’s done a lot of people a great benefit.”