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Bakken Boom Feels Fewer Birth Pangs (Part 1)

Bakken.com’s Mike Kopp recently went traveling in the Bakken region with business manager Andrew Lutz, what follows is his personal journey through the shale.

By: Mike Kopp, Bakken.com

The Bakken Boom is not what it used to be – it appears the region is moving past the pressure of Bakken birth pangs, caused by the delivery of the region’s latest oil boom.

Watford City

New building being built on main street Watford City

After a three-day business tour of the Bakken region, it’s apparent that Western North Dakota is not the peaceful wilderness ranch country of legend.

Andrew Lutz

Andrew Lutz walking to the car

It has a buzz, it is busy, but it is business and business is great.  We found several categories in which reality falls short of the fearsome fantasies that are foisted on folks farther east.  Andrew Lutz, the Bakken.com Business Development Manager and I met up in the heart of the oil country – downtown Watford City.  It’s a region I’m familiar with having lived and worked here a few years ago. Now I make regular, even monthly visits to Western North Dakota.  The center of the region’s most productive oil county is McKenzie County.  Combined with Mountrail County it represents one of the largest oil-producing regions in the world.  Changes continue to alter Watford City. Even the Courthouse is a construction zone.

McKenzie County Courthouse under construction

McKenzie County Courthouse under construction

The county’s skillful and wise business leadership is steering the city in to the next era. Bakken.com will tell you about those changes in a story with Economic Development Director Gene Veeder.

Food Service

    On this trip, I rode with Andrew, and that gave me a rare opportunity to be the sightseer instead of the pilot. Though we had spoken by phone and by email, our first face-to-face meeting was at one of the most outstanding steakhouses outside of a major city, Outlaws Bar and Grille.  Outlaws is an upscale family eatery.

Outlaws bar and grille

Everyone in the family gets a full meal at the Outlaws bar and grille.

It’s clean, comfortable and the cost is reasonable, just what you would expect to pay in Fargo or Bismarck.  Our initial meal there was good enough the first night to bring us back a second night.  The wait staff was busy with a full dining room. By the time Andrew and I left, a line of customers waited for our table, ready to add even more urgency to the scurrying troop of table-servers.  Our young waitress the second night, appeared inexperienced and uncertain; she stumbled her way through the serving, but no fouls and no strikes.


The Little Missouri Grill serves a full plate breakfast

Breakfast both days was at the long-time local landmark the Little Missouri Grille on Highway 85 on the western edge of Watford City.  Its clientele for years has been area ranchers, families, travelers, and tourists. These days, according to the manager, the restaurant is flooded with hungry men the moment the doors open at 6 a.m.

One of the reasons it’s popular is its serving portions. I like a restaurant that uses the whole plate instead of little separated and compartmentalized servings.  The Little Missouri’s portions are man-sized, and that’s what other customers we talked to said they liked about the restaurant.  Plates are full and stacked. Work crews who eat at the Little Missouri get their days started on a full stomach – and messages from home via smart phones.

Early Morning Breakfast

Early morning workers wait for their breakfast with smart phones in hand.

A second reason for popularity is its wait staff.  Our servers on both days were busy, fast and efficient, but very personable and took time for a little small talk while taking our order, filling our coffee cups and clearing our plates.

Our waitress the second morning told us she moved to Watford City from Idaho to be a waitress because she heard the pay was good.

Brittany working

Brittany scurries about to wait on hungry local and transient workers

“Is it that good?” I asked her.

“Oh yes,” she smiled as she refilled my coffee.  “Much better.”

On this trip, we did not find the rudeness, lazy workers, sub-standard service or high prices we were warned about. From the Cash Wise Grocery Store to the Kum-and-Go gas station, we found service was professional and efficient.


Brittany moved from Idaho to Watford City

Business owners we talked to in Watford City and New Town said their employees are keeping up with the flood of new business, but not easily.  At United Prairie in New Town, General Manager John Reese said the staff has grown in the last 10 years and that makes it tough to find adequate housing. That’s why his company is building housing for company families.


     Perhaps the biggest challenge of stopping for a meal in town is getting back on the highway.  Outside of town traffic flows orderly, but in town, be prepared for an infrequent moment to enter traffic. Left turns are especially difficult.


10 Traffic south of Watford City late in the afternoon flows smoothly

The North Dakota Department of Transportation is widening highways, adding passing lanes and turning lanes to help alleviate traffic tie ups and make the highways safer.  Additional work is ready to begin in 2014.

HW 85

The ND DOT is ready for spring construction season to continue widening HW 85

With grace and common sense, it is no challenge to navigate traffic in towns such as Watford City, New Town or Williston.  Like red cells in a blood stream, an endless stream of 18-wheelers, pickup trucks and cars flow through the heart of the Bakken.  Stop lights and stop signs are the valves that slow down traffic for safety, but they add to the time required to get through the main arteries of the cities.  So, if you’re planning to drive highway 85, 200 or 2 through the Bakken, be prepared for backups in town.  The North Dakota DOT is coming to the rescue of many of these smaller towns with by-pass surgery, building routes around the cities – a sign that the Bakken birth pains are abating.

Mike Kopp’s Bakken adventure will continue in a three-part series, on Thursday, December 26th. 

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