What does a city look like when its population more than doubles in the span of five years?
It’s probably difficult to visualize a growth of that scale and momentum, but it’s a transformation city officials and residents of Williston, North Dakota have grappled with since the area’s oil “boom” six years ago.
According to Census data, Williston rose from a quiet farming community of about 15,000 in 2010 to about 25,000 in July 2014. Today, Williston Chamber of Commerce President Scott Meske estimates that about 35,000 people live in the vicinity.
“From a sleepy, little agriculture town of about 10,000 at the turn of this century to more than 30,000 (residents)—yikes,” Meske said. “You can’t continue to grow 20 percent per year—no one can sustain that. It’s like running a four-minute mile for a full marathon. You can’t do it. You need roads, you need infrastructure, you need transportation, and then you need retail.”
Accommodations for growth as overwhelming as Williston’s, however, can’t end with improvements to physical infrastructure.
Oil and gas jobs tend to monopolize the workforce in Western North Dakota, leaving unfilled positions in other important sectors like Healthcare and law enforcement as the population swells.
“It’s rare that you’ll find a grizzled 12-year (police) vet who’s been working on the streets of Pittsburgh who’s willing to move out to Williston because the housing market continues to be an issue,” Meske said.
Williston’s housing issues have also contributed to its deficit of teachers, whose salaries are hardly compatible with the area’s pricey rent.
Meske said the city’s school district enrolled more than 300 new students this year—an influx that left schools scrambling to supplement its faculty in time for the fall semester. With several teaching positions still vacant by Labor Day, the district considered alternatives such as local engineers teaching math or former ranchers covering agricultural education.
“If I could find other experts in other areas, I’ll be looking at probably doing that maybe for a middle school math teacher, but I don’t have anybody out there that’s stepped up that’s even wanted to do that as a community expert,” Williston Superintendent Viola LaFontaine told The Dickinson Press. “There’s a lot of responsibility in being a teacher, and accountability, too.”
The shortage, however, extends opportunities to new teachers like Katie Harger. NBC North Dakota reports Harger will student-teach a third grade class under the supervision retired 38-year vet Cheryl Aberle for six weeks.
Once Harger completes her student-teaching period, Aberle will leave her to teach the class full-time.
“We both got a call a week and a half before school and heard about this, so we had a week to get this room prepared,” Harger told NBC North Dakota in August. “That is an incredible opportunity. Most people aren’t able to do that.”
A chance to ‘fill in the blank’
Despite the obstacles, Williston’s rapid growth has placed city planners and officials in a unique position to shape the city’s development.
“We are the western star of North Dakota, so we have to make sure we can meet the needs of travelers, vacationers, families and businesses,” Meske said. “The minerals and the agriculture are still here—we’re a huge agriculture base. So, the city now has an opportunity to set a course and rebrand itself from a boomtown into a hometown and a destination.”
And retail opportunities are abundant. The city’s airport relocation—a $250 million project set to break dirt next spring— could open up a hub for retail development.
“What that does is opens up 800 acres in a prime spot of Williston, basically in the center of the city, and now it’s up for redevelopment,” Meske said. “There’s some smart, smart people working on what that’s going to look like.”
While booming retail opportunities already exist across the state in Fargo, where local entrepreneurs can open successful, albeit offbeat retail ventures like an upcycled bowtie shop, olive oil emporium and even a store specializing in antique Chinese furniture, one might wonder—does Williston’s market have room for niche businesses like these?
“As we mature and continue to fill out our needs, someone’s going to do some market research and say, ‘we really need fill-in-the-blank’,” Meske said. “That’s part of a mature economy, when you start to see niches and not just medium box and big box stores.”
‘There are no mountains in North Dakota’
Rebranding will also help Williston to rescind its “wild west” reputation—a perception Meske said is exaggerated by show like ABC’s upcoming series “Blood and Oil.”
“(Blood and oil creators) say it’s based on western North Dakota, but it’s really kind of meant to sensationalize the oil boom in North Dakota,” Meske said. “I think first of all: it’s a year or two late, second of all: it’s all Hollywood, and third: there are no mountains in North Dakota.”
While North Dakota’s “boomtown” lore might inspire imaginations in Hollywood, Meske expects the state’s oil and gas operations to “tighten their belts” and persevere regardless of the oil downturn.
“We now see what we have to do to support that amount of activity,” he said. “We see we need ‘x’ amount of law enforcement officers, ‘x’ amount of housing, ‘x’ amount of retail, and we can adjust and go forward. When the price of oil goes up—and it will—we’re going to be ready because the activity is going to increase along with it.”
For more information on business opportunities, recreational activities, or how to make Williston your hometown, contact Scott Meske with the Williston Chamber of Commerce or the Williston Economic Development office.