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Williston, N.D. lures thousands of Floridians, but growth glut has made life hard for locals - and transplants

10:52 PM, Feb 5, 2013   |    comments
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  • This image of the continental United States at night is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012. (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC)
    

Fire, ice and fortune

City of Williston

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Williston Relocation Guide

North Dakota Jobs Service

Williston Chamber of Commerce

Fracking Info & Environmental Concerns

North Dakota State University Report

When the winter sun sets in western North Dakota, the icy landscape begins to glow. Fire pits and natural gas burnoffs illuminate the night sky; so much that when seen from space, Williston (pop 33,000) shines more brightly than Minneapolis-St. Paul (population 3.2 million).

"At nighttime, look out on the sides of roads there's fires, 20-foot in the air," says Jason Roy of St. Petersburg. "[They're] just kind of polka-dotting the horizon. It's a constant reminder of what's up here."

What's up here is the oil that has enticed Floridians like Roy to pull up stakes and chase the boom. For Roy, who is paying off a massage school loan faster than he ever could at home, the payoff is real. The jobs are here and the money is good.

But life in a boomtown isn't easy. Traffic accidents have tripled. Last fall, the school district had to cancel several teacher contracts, simply because they couldn't find an affordable place for the teachers to live. And the lines at local businesses are almost comically long.

"Places like McDonalds and stuff, they must be doing real well they're packed, the drive thru is backed up from 10 o clock to 2-3 o clock in the afternoon," says Joe Seidel, a Minnesota transplant who works maintenance at a local RV camp. "A simple trip to Walmart ... it can take over an hour. Two or three hours is not uncommon."

VIDEO: Residents talk about Walmart, the busiest spot in town

Chuck Wilder, owner of Books on Broadway, an independent bookstore and coffee shop in downtown Williston, is a native with deep roots. His parents grew up here. His grandmothers lived in Williston when the town was founded, in 1887. The town's unofficial historian, Wilder takes the long view of the transformation.

"Well, in the last couple years, the town has completely changed... When you drive out and around and see all the building and construction and activity, it's amazing."
The flood of new residents has turned Williston from a rural backwater into the fastest growing small city in America. Household incomes have more than doubled. Building permits have increased from about 19 a decade ago to nearly 1,000 this year. Sales tax revenues now exceed those of the state's largest cities.

Nowhere is the strain of the new arrivals more apparent than in the local housing market. An apartment in Williston costs more than some in Manhattan. A single hotel room can cost $700 a week. And rising rents have simply priced some elderly residents out of the market.

"Some senior citizens on fixed incomes have really been driven out of the town," says Mayor Ward Koeser, "and that's a really sad thing."
The Kensington, a former assisted living facility that catered to Alzheimer's patients, recently transitioned to weekly rentals catering to oil field workers with rents of $600 a week. With nowhere else to go, the former residents either had to move back in with family, or transfer to another facility in another town.

The displacement disturbs Barbara Hylick. "It bothers me that the older generation is being kicked out of the facilities so they can turn them into apartments so they can rent them out," she says.

The Elite Fitness center where Hylick works is part health club and part clinic. She has several clients who've been displaced by the boom, and many complain about the crush of newcomers.

"I understand their hostility," she says. "It hurts my feelings sometimes. And they're 'Barb, were not upset because you're here, but we're just upset this is happening."

Dealing with the frustration of locals isn't the only source of friction faced by new arrivals. Ken Sibley is a bartender at JDubs, one of the town's busiest bars, and a place that has seen its share of fallout from the population surge.

"I've been here for the last 27 years and it's changed dramatically. Dramatically," says Sibley. Initially, he says, the influx of young, mostly single men brought chaos and violence. More recently, tensions have leveled out. "I have to admit the bar fights have calmed down. Used to be two, three fights a night in every bar. Every restaurant."

VIDEO: Chuck Wilder of Books on Broadway discusses the pros and cons of development

Crime has also been an issue. The city's crime rate has more than doubled since 2007, with the biggest increase seen in the number of assaults. City leaders point out that the increase is proportional to the population, and still lower than larger North Dakota cities, but it does affect how people feel about living in Williston.

Beth Bartel says it's something all residents think about. "You know, you see on the news a lot how violent -- how much crime was in the area, women weren't safe to go out after dark."

Ivan Guerrero teaches a weekly Bible study at the Capital Lodge man camp, and he hears plenty of stories about the city's dark side from the oil workers who live there.

"There is prostitution everywhere. It's easy to get in trouble. There's drugs. ... Hookers make more money here than in Vegas."

Like most Floridians we met, Guerrero has wrestled with the issues that affect Williston. But like the others we spoke to, he seemed less concerned with the issue that consumes most outside observers -- the oil boom's environmental impacts.

The most obvious impact is seen in the natural gas flares, used to burn off the methane and hydrocarbons released when drilling for oil. The burnoffs are polluting, and extremely wasteful. Some 200 million cubic feet of natural gas is burned off each day - enough to power a city of a half-million people. The gas is cheap compared to the light, sweet crude being pumped from the vast Bakken oil reserve. But extracting the oil also generates millions of gallons of salty, chemical-infused wastewater. This brine is supposed to be injected deep underground for disposal. But a 2012 review by the nonprofit investigative journalism outfit ProPublica found that the oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases last year alone. They were punished just 50 times in the prior three years.

Lori Haugen is a Williston native who spent the last 10 years in Portland. Like a lot of her friends, she's followed the boom back home, excited by the promise of a fast growing and increasingly diverse community. But she's worried too. "I'm concerned about how they're working the land. I think there need to be more regulations which most people wouldn't want to hear... At night you see all the flares of all the natural gas being burned off big waste of energy and a lot of pollutants."

Chuck Wilder also worries about natural resources. "Water is going to be a critical resource. Concern I have is all the water they're pumping. That's my big concern with fracking."
But transplants like Jason Roy think the economic benefits outweigh those concerns. "If it's here, if economy is as bad as they say it is, why not go for it? They're doing everything they can to do it as safely as they can. It's there. Why not use it?"

Jacksonville native Troy Mickler agrees. "I think our concern is more it's not going to be here. It totally affects our job. If something should happen with that or some sort of EPA regulations happen with fracking and shuts 'em down we're right behind them... They're not here not we're not here.

Of course, if anything is clear to people living the boom, it's the fact that everything has a price. "Everything costs more in scenic Williston, North Dakota," says Joe Seidel. "It's just the way it is. Everybody wants their share of the black gold coming out of the ground."

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