Minot Daily News, Minot, Jan. 28, 2016
Minot and the ‘vision thing’
There appear to be more and more of them around Minot. “Them” as in paved lots, partially constructed foundations and fading placards introducing a coming development of some sort. These are the vestiges of a boom that has now taken a downturn if not to “bust,” then at least to a lesser new norm. They are signs of postponed progress, dreams delayed and the whims of a commodity-driven economy.
Just a few years ago, Minot was in a midst of a building boom. The concrete boundary of the city was expanding, to the south and west in particular. New residential and commercial properties seemed to appear overnight and be actualized in a brief period of time. Driven by a sudden roaring economy, it seemed as if there couldn’t be enough development. There wasn’t enough housing in Minot or in the region to support the burgeoning population, restaurants were full and every time you went to the grocery store you saw scores of new faces.
With the now-prolonged dip in oil prices and the slowdown in the Bakken region, much of this has stopped, prompting the lonely swinging placards of unfinished dreams here and there around town. Some of the fault rests on the private sector’s overreaction to the economic boom in the region. Development was planned around the idea that the boom would be an extensive one and oriented around maximizing profit.
However, it was not all the responsibility of the private sector. State and federal authorities and leaders encouraged the belief that the boom would be sure and steady, further encouraging investment, and investment from outside the region. The boom and bust days of the 1980s would not return.
As a result, long-term consideration wasn’t necessarily a priority. Few asked if the building boom was focused on sustainable development, the type of things that the community could support in more mediocre economic times. If the tremendous activity in the Bakken slowed just a little, how could the economy support such a critical mass of hotels? How could a more consistent population support so much housing?
The answer seems to be that it can’t.
While there is a limit on what the public sector can do to control development, it can manage growth better. Consistent firm zoning, forward-thinking infrastructure development and the empowerment of homeowner associations are just a few ways to at least help maneuver the free market ship.
Sure, the local economy has slumped. But it will certainly take off once again. When it does, hopefully local and regional authorities will recognize the need to have a vision for whatever the future may hold and incentivize appropriate growth and development to weather any storm and sail any economic tide.
That way, next time around, there will be more solid new foundations.
The Bismarck Tribune, Bismarck, Jan. 28, 2016
State adjusts to changing times
The federal government may have declared war on coal, but sometimes competition can impact the industry.
The Dakota Westmoreland coal mine south of Beulah will be laying off 95 employees, mostly miners, starting in March. Westmoreland’s layoffs are prompted by the loss of a contract to another company. Westmoreland had been supplying coal to the nearby Coyote Station power plant. Otter Tail Power Co. operates Coyote Station along with three other owners, including MDU. The companies say they switched coal suppliers to North American Coal Corp. because they were offering a better price.
That’s the marketplace at work and sometimes the results can be harsh. The Westmoreland workers knew the layoffs were coming and some have already moved on and their replacements know their jobs are temporary. That doesn’t soften the blow for the community; any time you lose 95 good-paying jobs it hurts.
The closure of the Beulah Job Service office adds to the problem, though a computer kiosk in Beulah will provide some help to job seekers. Seven regional Job Service offices have been closed in the state as Job Service North Dakota deals with a $4 million budget shortfall. Job Service operates on federal funds and state decided against making up the shortfall. The state didn’t want to be the position of bailing out a federal agency.
These are tough decisions the state hasn’t had to face over the last few years. The booming oil patch has helped keep everything humming, but slumping oil prices mean a period of adjustment. While the loss of Westmoreland’s mining jobs isn’t related to oil prices it comes at a time when new jobs aren’t as readily available. At the same time, state’s unemployment rate in December was 2.7 percent, the lowest in the nation. The national rate was 5 percent. However, initial unemployment claims increased 33.9 percent in December compared to the same time in 2014.
The state’s labor force declined 1.2 percent, from 416,341 in December 2014 to 411,543 in December 2015, according to Job Service. This would indicate some workers, especially in the oil patch, may have left the state. The low unemployment rate also suggests that North Dakotans are responding to the economic times. It’s painful to lose your job, but hopefully the advance notice the Beulah workers had will make it easier for them to find new work. While the Job Service cuts hurt, the state took a fiscally responsible approach when not funding the agency.
Dakota Westmoreland isn’t closing down, it will keep 40 miners and others to mine the half-million tons it is scheduled to deliver annually through 2021 to the MDU-Heskett Station near Mandan, and to complete reclamation. The company will be planning for beyond 2021 just as businesses across the state and government bodies will plan for the future. The outlook remains bright.
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