Developers of the proposed Bakken Village imagine a hamlet emerging from the western North Dakota grasslands, a modern-day version of the famed 1950s-era planned community, Levittown, N.Y., or one of Henry Ford’s company towns.
The Bakken Village’s logo sets a carefully balanced scene on the developer’s plot of land northeast of Williston, N.D. Stalks of wheat flank an oil derrick.
The peaceful imagery puts a softer frame around tensions between the area’s “old timer” farmers and the influx of oil workers drawn to the resource-rich Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota and Montana. The Bakken Village project has emerged as a lightning rod in the debate over the state’s future, as the rush for crude upsets housing markets and transforms old farming communities.
If completed, the village would provide affordable housing for oil workers and their families, according to the developers, creating from scratch North Dakota’s first new town in decades.
But the project’s developers withdrew their bid to incorporate northeast of Williston in Williams County, putting the fate of the village in limbo. The project’s rocky rise and fall is raising more questions about affordable housing and the region’s capacity to keep up with the oil boom. Further, it points to a quiet discussion among local people about the long-term prospects for the Bakken fields and how to invest scarce financial resources.
The concept behind Bakken Village can trace its origins to neighboring South Dakota, where FourFront Design Inc. built the town of Summerset.
The Rapid City, S.D.-based architectural and engineering firm led a successful campaign to incorporate Summerset in 2005. As its own municipality, Summerset is responsible for basic services such as wastewater treatment and providing a local police force in addition to managing its own city government.
Bakken Village, also designed by FourFront, is based on a similar model. The city would sprout out of a largely empty swath of prairie across the street from a truck stop, about 10 minutes’ drive from Williston. The project’s first phase would include housing, community services and commercial developments. The second phase would see more homes and schools and flesh out other long-term infrastructure.
“The idea is that if you can start with raw ground that has not been the subject of land speculation, you’ll be able to build a house and make it affordable,” said Chuck Neff, legal counsel for Bakken Village and an attorney at Neff Eiken & Neff PC in Williston.
Neff said 70 percent of homes in the village would cost between $150,000 and $250,000.
“There’s a great need for affordable housing in northwest North Dakota, given the energy boom out here and the pressure from all the people moving out here so fast,” he said.
Neff’s comments came before developer Bakken Village LLC withdrew its bid for incorporation, and he could not immediately be reached for comment about the rationale behind the decision to shelve the project.
Phil Olsen, project manager for Bakken Village LLC and a real estate broker based in Black Hawk, S.D., said Friday “we withdrew the application for incorporation.” He declined to speculate on the future of the development or the reasons his business canceled its bid.
The new North Slope
Before the decision, Bakken Village’s fate was in the hands of the Williams County Board of Commissioners. The local board had set up a task force this spring to determine if the development was in the best interests of the county.
From the get-go, Commission Chairman Dan Kalil, a member of the task force, was skeptical about the project. He argued that Williston’s housing shortage, which has sent property values and rental costs skyrocketing, derives from a “lack of places to sleep” rather than a need for the expansive houses and shopping centers in the proposed Bakken Village.
“I don’t know if they’re giving up on it or if it’s a stalling tactic,” he said, speaking by phone from atop a tractor on his farm northwest of Williston.
Kalil, who plants sorghum, flax and other small grains in addition to raising red Angus cattle, said that the number of families seeking housing in Williston was “overblown.”
“It’s all single guys. It’s people who have left their families behind,” he said. “They’re not gonna move here. This is the new North Slope. You come in, work for a few weeks and go home.”
A surge of oil workers have made their way out to North Dakota, drawn by the prospects of six-figure salaries and the lowest unemployment rate in the United States.
Buoyed by new drilling technologies, oil production in North Dakota has surged from an average of 95,000 barrels per day in 2005 to 783,000 barrels per day in March of this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Williston, which hosted fewer than 30,000 people at last estimate, has quickly become the epicenter of the state’s shale boom. The U.S. Census Bureau recently dubbed Williston the fastest-growing micropolitan area in the country with a growth rate of 9.3 percent between summer 2011 and 2012. Local officials say an accurate population count is hard to come by because so many oil workers live in “man camps,” makeshift housing arrangements offering the bare minimum amenities.
Yet despite bustling growth, some Williston residents are skeptical about the oil renaissance that has made North Dakota the nation’s top-producing state behind Texas. After all, the city has witnessed previous boom and bust cycles of petro-wealth. In the mid-1980s, crude output peaked at about 144,000 barrels per day in North Dakota before settling into a steep and steady decline.
“There’s always the question on everyone’s lips: When is this thing going to cool off or shut down?” attorney Neff acknowledged. “And if it does, what’s going to become of Bakken Village?”
Upsetting the past
Neff maintained that “this [boom] is going to have some staying power,” paving the way for long-term 10- or 20-year projects like the Bakken Village to succeed.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there is still at least 7.3 billion barrels of recoverable crude in the Bakken Shale formation, although the oil and gas industry may have to resort to costly extraction measures to exploit the formation’s full potential (EnergyWire, June 6). These expensive well stimulation techniques, including pumping CO2 and natural gas rather than fracking fluid to coax out oil, weren’t available to sustain the state’s earlier, smaller oil craze.
“The [boom] that came to an end in the ’80s changed the community, but it wasn’t the intensity that we see now,” said state Rep. Patrick Hatlestad (R), who has lived in Williston since 1951. “This is much bigger, and I think it’s made a much greater, fundamental change in the community. A lot of our old timers — people who built the community over the last 20 years — have sold their homes and moved.”
Some remaining longtime residents are tired of dealing with the stress of new development.
One farmer whose land abuts the Bakken Village’s tract said he wishes he could go back in time to the Williston of five years ago.
“We want our peace and quiet back, and this Bakken [Village] development is a big, loud, squeaky horn right next door,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because if the project moves forward, “I gotta live here the rest of my life.”
Despite having witnessed the growing pains of development, Hatlestad said he supports the petroleum industry and the oil-related growth gripping Williston.
“It’s like living in a home that is undergoing a total remodel,” Hatlestad said. “Right now, it’s chaos, but you know when it’s done, it’s going to be really quite nice.”
It is unclear if the Bakken Village will be part of that remodeling. If created, it would mark the first new municipality in the state since tiny Oxbow became a city back in 1988.
But if nixed, the development would fade away as another oil-fueled pipe dream in North Dakota’s latest boom.