Saturday, January 20, 2018
Business

North Dakota oil rush has an empty feeling

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

A former Anoka, Minn., 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 boxlike modular living pods.

In Williston, the epicenter of the growth, the local hospital opened a new birthing center, workers are building a giant rec center and students are overflowing in a once-empty school. 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 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."

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. 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.

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 Walmart 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.

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.

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

Erik Morin of Oscoda, Mich., sat in a Watford City laundry on a day off recently, waiting for his clothes to dry and taking long distance 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 over a year 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.

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

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