WATFORD CITY, N.D. — When Brent Sanford graduated high school nearly 25 years ago, his tiny prairie town seemed to be withering away. Storefronts were shuttered, senior classes shrinking, families packing up and moving out. He joined the exodus.
But he kept looking for a way to return. He followed his town's struggles from afar, getting updates from his father and subscribing to the local weekly newspaper. He'd read about plans to lure businesses to Watford City, but the results were discouraging. "It was sad to see," Sanford says. "They were trying to get things to happen ... but you couldn't force people to live here. There had to be a draw. There had to be a reason."
Watford City now has a reason: Billions of dollars of oil in the shale beneath the ground.
This town suddenly finds itself at the epicenter of the Bakken oil boom. A tidal wave of oil money has erased the dusty, forlorn crossroads that once stood here and replaced it with a bustling community. As Watford City marks its 100th anniversary this year, it stands astride a county where more than 8 million barrels of oil — nearly 300,000 a day — were pumped out of the shale in February. McKenzie County is the top oil producer in the state.
Oil already has transformed the landscape. Construction cranes tower in the sky. Houses and hotels are proliferating. Trucks rumble along Highway 85, creating bumper-to-bumper traffic. Tongues of flame flare from new wells. Help wanted notices beckon from billboards and roadside signs. And the free-flowing cash has drawn investors from as far away as China and France.
"I don't know how else to say it, but it's mindboggling to see," says Sanford, now Watford City's mayor. "It seems very surreal most of the time. We don't have a choice but to keep up with it and try to stay ahead of it. ... It's like all those chances we were looking for in the mid '90s and early 2000s just hit us with a fire hose."
The Bakken bump — as it's often called — has pumped new life and new opportunities into long-fading hamlets, such as Grenora, where temporary new homes have popped up and oil rigs whiz by at all hours. It's too soon to know how much these towns will benefit and for how long. But probably no place illustrates the possibilities and growing pains better than Watford City.
"I've been around long enough to see both sides," says Gene Veeder, McKenzie County's economic development director. "The economic boom is fantastic. But the effort that it's taken to deal with it is extraordinary. How do you build a city that's grown this fast in such a short period of time? How do you come up with a financial plan to do justice to the people moving here?"
It's a question he never could have imagined during those desperate days when he scrambled to find tenants for 14 empty storefronts along Main Street. Back then, Veeder touted Watford City's tranquility, cheap housing and low-cost labor — all gone now. But there were few takers.
"Fifteen years ago we couldn't get people to look this way," he says. "Now everyone is looking ... and we need to find a way to serve them."
Town officials are trying: They've expanded the sewer and water systems for a mushrooming population that could reach 17,000 by 2017 — 10 times the 2010 census. They've offered subsidized housing to essential public workers, such as police officers and teachers, who can't afford soaring housing costs: Monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment has spiked from $500 to $2,000 or more in the last three years.
They've hired extra police to deal with rising numbers of calls and increasing crime.
And they've issued building permits at a record pace. By fall, there will be another 2,000 apartment units and 300 to 400 homes (many folks now live in campers or "man camps," dormitory-like settings). A new high school, community center and hospital are planned.
By the end of 2014 there will be nine hotels. Not long ago, there was just one, and a seasonal motel.
Four churches also plan to expand, says Jeff Ruggles, pastor of CrossPoint Church, whose congregation has tripled since he arrived five years ago. His church will break ground this summer on an addition that will house a sanctuary, indoor playground and what he calls a "mancave" to compete with the local bars — a hangout with a casual, friendly atmosphere, but without alcohol.
In the past two years, he says, he's seen people struggle with financial problems, marriage troubles and the stresses of living in campers, working 90-hour weeks. "I sit down and deal with people hurting and broken in ways that I've never seen before," he says.
It's not just new arrivals feeling the strain. Some longtime residents— especially elderly folks — who relished the peace and quiet of the past have left town, tired of traffic and long lines.
"You'll see much more enthusiasm from someone who has moved here in the last five years than someone who has been here 40 years," Veeder explains.
Luke Allen, who moved here last summer to start his dental practice, finds the pioneer spirit exhilarating.
"It has the same buzz that big cities have. It has the energy but it comes from a different source — the industry and the work," says Allen, 35, a former rock guitarist. "No matter what hour of the day or day of the week, I can see the semis rolling. ... It's exciting to me. I can just feel it in the air. ... It's like that show 'Deadwood,' a bunch of guys in the Wild West, but it's people driving cars instead of riding horses."
Allen says his practice is thriving — he sees 15 to 20 patients daily — and others are prospering, too, including a couple who quickly found jobs, together bringing in more than $100,000 a year. "They went from a home in a tent to a camper to sharing a home to now having their own place," he says. "Where else can you do that?"
He worries, though, about housing costs when his wife joins him this summer. But "it's worth it," he says. "We're in a historic time. To come up and be part of that is kind of cool, I think."
A generation ago, Sanford — whose grandfather was mayor and father a city council member — had different worries. When he left for college, the town had few job prospects for young people. At his 10-year high school reunion, he says, only three members of his 68-member class had remained in Watford City.
"When your community is aging, it seems like there's a pretty good idea of what the end game is ... The last person that dies shuts the door," he says. Sanford lived in Fargo, Phoenix and Denver, then returned in 2004 — before the boom — to take over the Ford dealership co-owned by his father, who'd decided to retire.
Gene Veeder left during the early 1980s when the family ranch could no longer support two generations. He returned 15 years later when his father became ill. He now lives on the land his Norwegian grandfather homesteaded a century ago — photos of those pioneering days are featured in the county's history museum. And his three daughters have all moved back in recent years. .
Like many others, Veeder remembers how the oil boom of the 1980s — there also was one in the 1950s — fizzled rapidly. "There's that fear that still runs through the fabric of the community — that it will happen again. It's still the ghost in the corner that's looking at us all the time saying, 'Are you doing the right thing?'"
History won't repeat itself, says Dean Bangsund, a research scientist at North Dakota State University who has studied the Bakken. "I don't think we're going to have that door slammed shut like it was in the 1980s. It went from boon to bust in 18 months. It was painful."
The boom is much bigger this time. Experts say Bakken wells will last 25 -to-30 years.
"This one seems like it's never going to quit," says a smiling Gordon Levang, who at 95 has been in Watford City for almost its entire history. He has a home in town and a farm outside, where wells are being drilled, he says. All in all, he considers himself lucky. It'll be nice, he says "to have something to pass on to your kids."
The mayor says the new housing, businesses and public buildings will give Watford City a foundation so it can diversify into agricultural and energy manufacturing once the oil slows. "We couldn't even begin to attract that type of activity here in the sleepy little town we were," he says.
Jessie Veeder — one of Gene Veeder's daughters — vividly remembers her childhood when she'd ride her bike down dusty back roads and not see a car or stand atop the hill and not see a light.
No more. She's still adjusting to the trade-off.
"You can't have it both ways — you can't have this real booming industry, all this economic growth and all this prosperity without having some repercussions," she says. "Sometimes it's tough having people driving, digging and changing things. ... You put it in perspective. It's business. It just feels like it's going so fast. The growth in the industry didn't trickle in, it came roaring down the road."
Jessie Veeder's husband works in the oil fields. She blogs about her love of open space and her pride at living in the place her great-grandfather called home.
She sings and writes songs, too, including one about the revival of Watford City. It's called "Boomtown," and the last verse pays homage to those younger folks who've returned to their roots. It goes:
'Jimmy's moved back home
He's helping dad cut hay
Pumps in the morning
But he gets home by five
We almost lost him there
Now he's more alive
God bless the sound
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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