McKenzie County is still seeing growth, despite recent layoffs and budget cuts that have dominated recent news headlines. While drilling has indeed slowed, production holds steady. As a result: permanent jobs and a steady stream of economic growth in the region.
People might not be flocking to the Bakken like they were two years ago, but population in McKenzie County is now beginning to stabilize. Located in the heart of the oil patch, about half the current rigs in operation are located there. While many companies have cut back their total number of employees, those who are left are in for the long haul, and those who are still working are really good at what they do. They’re not going anywhere.
In fact, according to First International Bank and Trust CEO Steve Stenehjem, the job outlook for McKenzie County looks promising. Several businesses in Watford City and the surrounding area have recently expanded, with commercial construction projects, infrastructure, and housing developments in the works.
Building infrastructure and creating jobs in a downturn
The North Dakota Public Service Commission recently approved the construction permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.78 billion infrastructure project that will transport approximately 450,000 barrels of Bakken crude per day. The oil will travel through the pipeline to Patoka, Illinois, where it will then be directed to markets across the country.
The project’s total cost in North Dakota is estimated at $1.4 billion, and its estimated revenue for North Dakota during construction is $32.9 million. Two terminals out of the six necessary to operate the pipeline are located just outside of Watford City, generating approximately 40 full-time positions.
In addition to Dakota Access, three additional pipelines are in the works to help update oil infrastructure in western North Dakota, all providing permanent jobs. ONEOK, Oasis, and Sacagawea Pipeline Co. all have plans to build lines that will need people to provide construction as well as long-term maintenance.
ONEOK’s Lonesome Creek gas processing plant began operations late last year, all part of a 6-year, multi-billion dollar plan to provide processing and infrastructure in the Williston Basin. Watford City, in the midst of it all, is the central hub for all this activity.
Sustaining a city’s growth spurt
As oil and gas infrastructure grows, the city grows, too. Those who are hired for permanent positions in the state’s booming energy industry bring families. School enrollment is often an indicator of a city’s population, and during the past several years of the “boom,” Watford City’s school enrollment went from 537 in 2010 to 1325 students today. Even with the current oil slump, there was no decrease in enrollment, according to McKenzie County Superintendent Steve Holen.
An independent demographics study projects future enrollment to continue on a steady increase, with total enrollment hitting over 3,000 in 2025. Holen noted the study was completed taking into consideration the current oil and gas industry downturn. He said that population continues to increase, because many of the jobs in the area are now focused on production rather than exploration, so jobs are stable. Stable jobs bring families, which is a huge plus as the city strives to create a family-oriented atmosphere.
Watford City’s new high school officially dedicated the facility in a formal ceremony at noon on Feb. 15, and classes began the following day. A new elementary school is also already in the works to further relieve classroom crowding.
Directly adjacent to the new high school sits the Watford City Event Center. Projected to be fully operational by Sept 1, the center boasts two hockey rinks, a swimming pool, a gymnastics room and an indoor field house for soccer, baseball and other sports.
The event center can also host concerts, conventions and business meetings with meeting space up to accommodate 1,000 people.
Space to grow
Just across from the new McKenzie County High School is the Fox Hills Village, a bustling development featuring commercial, multi-family, and residential property, with pad ready sites currently available. At the center of the development is a 15,524 square foot complex that features First International Bank, set to open the third week in March.
The complex also features a slew of new businesses that includes the Wild Cow Coffee and Cream coffee shop and the Stonehome Brewing Company. The brewery will offer a variety of food choices to complement beer brewed on location. Both will open approximately six weeks after the bank’s grand opening.
With both the new high school nearby and fresh places to eat and shop popping up, Fox Hills is prime real estate in Watford City. Stenehjem is optimistic about the area’s vitality. He references three new apartment complexes in the works with several single family home lots still for sale. Another recently-sold lot in Fox Hills has many possibilities. “The buyer is considering several different options,” Stenehjem said, noting a possible grocery store or entertainment complex.
Whatever new building goes up, however, is a testament to the city’s continued growth. Investors and developers alike see promise in the thriving little city where the prairie meets the oil patch.
City-Wide Development, from JL Beers to jail
The healthy Watford City economy also recently welcomed five new main street businesses. McKenzie County Economic Development director Gene Veeder told the McKenzie County Farmer, “A vital Main Street in Watford City has been a priority of community development for many years, and we are excited to fill the spaces with interesting and unique businesses that add to the public experience in town.”
New main street businesses include the North Dakota favorite burger joint JL Beers, Getting Nailed, Door 204, Shipping Crate Pottery and Beaver Creek Creations. Off of Main Street, Hardees will join Subway, Taco John’s and Smiling Moose Deli in delivering fast food options to the population.
Additionally, a new law enforcement center will be completed later this year or in early 2017. McKenzie Electric Cooperative’s new building is under construction, and two new hotels have recently sprung up. Single family housing continues to grow, too.
With new growth on the business front, and solid, dependable full-time jobs still available, the city has seemed to buck the downturn by evolving into a thriving mini-metropolis. Hometown pride mixed with strong vision and leadership help to drive the city’s economic growth, and there’s still room to grow.