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WATFORD CITY, North Dakota — Well into the night, among wheat and durum fields, a 30-foot tall flame shoots violently from the flare stack of an oil production site, licking the night sky and producing a jet-like roar that can be heard for miles.
On the outskirts of town, where antelope once bedded down for the night and the coyotes used to yelp, there are enough flares from North Dakota’s oil boom that the night sky oftentimes isn’t black at all. It glows a soft orange, hovering above cities like Watford as a reminder, for some, of how much has been lost. And for others, how much has been gained.
It has been almost four years since oil companies migrated to this region to draw nearly 1 million barrels of oil per day off the Bakken shale formation, setting off a gold-like rush and marking the state as the second highest crude oil producing state in the nation behind Texas.
The question for many residents is now clear.
“Where do we go from here? That’s the question we ask ourselves every day,” said Gene Veeder, McKenzie County Economic Development director.
In Watford City, farming and ranching were once the epicenter of the community. Five years ago, the population barely hovered above 1,400. For residents who used to know every name and face, from downtown Main Street to the family farms patch-worked around the city, this oil boom has been jarring.
It's just a huge transformation for rural America. Holy Hannah, this is fast.
Council member, Watford City, N.D.
“There’s a much bigger story of life going on here,” said Doug Bolken, McKenzie County’s tourism director and a Watford City council member. “We have been overwhelmed, but I think the community is possibly feeling they can take a breath now.”
It might not last long, experts say. As the region emerges from a long, cold winter, residents prepare for another fast-paced burst of business. A 2012 Energy Works North Dakota study projected that the oil and natural gas industry in North Dakota will produce another 13,144 jobs by 2015 and an additional 15,840 jobs by 2020.
The Bakken region now accounts for more than 10 percent of total U.S. oil production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's Drilling Productivity Report (DPR). Watford City is the seat of the fastest-growing county in the country – swelling to 10,000 to 15,000 people during busy months – more than ten times the usual population. The region, characterized by its wide open spaces and small-town Midwestern living, has fast become the hotbed for a swarm of business, providing thousands of jobs almost overnight – and drastically changing the pace of life in these once-sleepy small towns.
“Now we have a Cash Wise, Tractor Supply, Taco John’s, Red Wings Shoes,” Bolken said. It’s not uncommon to enter a business or church and find construction plans for an addition or renovation stapled by the door.
“It’s just a huge transformation for rural America,” Bolken said, “Holy Hannah, this is fast.”
Boom or bust?
To stymie the lack of affordable housing – a small two-bedroom apartment rents for $2,500 a month - 1500 housing units are under construction and at least another 1500 permitted, Veeder said.
The city is poised to build a proposed $56 million recreation center, $58 million health center, and a new high school.
Policing the influx of people, which has also brought violence, drugs, prostitution, car accidents and theft, is a challenge. In a North Dakota State University study last year called “Policing the Patch,” the number of calls to law enforcement jumped from just 41 calls in 2006 to 4,000 in 2011. In nearby Williston, the number tripled between 2005 and 2011 – to 16,000 calls.
Depending on who you ask, it’s the start of a well-established micropolitan built on the back of an industry. Or it’s a boom that will bust, as two before it have, leaving the community to clean up the mess.
Either way, if some families are looking to stay and settle, it’s important to provide affordable housing, retail stores, health facilities and recreation, said Gene Veeder, McKenzie County Economic Development director. His own three grown daughters and their families have returned to Watford for jobs.
“We have to finance these things,” he said, but not overcommit funds because the growth will eventually slow. “People say, ‘I love the Midwestern living and I want to stay, but I can’t find a home.’ I want to get over that hump.”
Stay a night or stay a year
An advertisement for a residential suite that reads “Stay a Night, or Stay a Year” illuminates the standing debate here – whether new people will actually stay, and if so, how long.
Hannah Wight, 22, came here from western Montana with her boyfriend. She works for North Dakota Housing, a property at the edge of town with 600 housing units, including rows of small trailers stacked hundreds deep. Her housing is included, which means she can tuck away more money here.
“We want to start a family within the next ten years,” she said, but it won’t be in North Dakota. She likes it here, but they have a dream to buy land and a house back in Montana.
“We’ll stay maybe five years,” she said. “We have a financial goal of how much we need to save.”
The rural community reminds her of home.
“I feel like an intruder,” she said. “I would hate to have grown up here and have had this happen.”
Her boss, David Kingman, is from Minneapolis, still owns a home there and goes back every couple weeks to visit his family.
“It’s not that I don’t like it here, but my family is back in Minnesota and my wife is not interested in moving here,” he said.
Even people who want to stay can’t because of poor credit, he said, or there simply isn’t anything for them to buy.
“The city would like more owner-occupied homes,” Kingman said. “But there are still very few buyers.”
In Minnesota, he owned a business building townhome communities. But when the housing market collapsed, his business dried up.
“These are a far cry from what I called housing in Minnesota,” he said, nodding toward the trailers.
Bryan McMannes came to North Dakota from Indiana two years ago for a different reason – to be a stranger.
“I came to get away from drug addiction,” he said. “I couldn’t do it in the town I lived in. Everybody knew me. Here, I like that I don’t know anyone.”
Now a tire technician, McMannes has become a Christian and is sober and clean from drugs. He just got his North Dakota drivers license..
“I have nothing to go back to, so it’s a no-brainer for me,” he said.
Bill Mathismoved from Michigan to Watford to work as a mechanic in the 1980s at the height of the second oil boom, first living in a company bunkhouse, a school bus and eventually a trailer court. He now lives with his wife Barb in downtown Watford City in a home they have owned since 1985.
“It was very hard after the second one,” Barb said. “Businesses started closing. They had overbuilt because they thought it would last longer.”
One of those was hers – a downtown restaurant with fresh rolls and pies she baked before the sun rose every morning. When the oil slowed and people moved on, she had to close.
The danger for the community will be doing too much too fast, she added.
“They are building subdivisions so fast,” she said. “It’s quantity over quality.”
The couple drove by a new development on a windy day and watched as the shingles on new houses flipped off in the wind.
Dave Knudtson, owner of the NAPA Auto Parts on Main Street has lived here for 55 years. The oil ushered in funding for a facelift to the downtown streets, and provided new employees.
And the bad?
Trash. No parking. Theft. He has had two pick-up trucks stolen from the front of his store.
"The Mayberry scene is no longer,” he said. “It's strange to hardly recognize anybody anymore I’m not going to leave. Home is home is home."
Pastures no more
Justin and Angie Hartel miss Mayberry too. Both of them grew up in Watford City and are now raising five kids on a 160-acre ranch.
“I support oil production,” Justin said. “The more we can become dependent on our own oil, the better, but at a slower and more controlled pace.”
On a recent afternoon, his 12-year-old son Cauy crawls into a truck with him and they head to the pasture.
Life is more complicated now, Justin said.
“We live six miles out and sometimes it takes 45 minutes to get to town,” he said, approaching a new calf, just born and still soaked in after-birth. The anxious mother paces nearby as Justin straddles the wobbly-kneed baby and tags its ear.
He wonders what the land and oil wells will look like in a couple decades. North of town, one landowner was paid $25,000 by an oil company. Construction plowed through the once serene vista and peeled back large swaths of land to create flat areas for oil pads. Locals say the land will never be usable as a field or pasture again.
Many families are making money from the oil boom – either through mineral rights, or by selling water to the companies for fracking.
“But many of them say they’d give it back if it would slow down,” Justin said.
Living in a construction zone
Veeder, a long-term resident and rancher, misses quiet roads and tranquility.
“You’re living in a construction zone,” he said, and yet it’s time to move forward.
“It was an agriculture-based economy and we’re slipping away from that,” he said. “You want to go out and see openness and something is there, being developed. Part of our new landscape is the pumping jacks.”
Patsy and Gary Levang, who live on a farm 19 miles from Watford, also worry about the effect on rural America.
“The railroad’s priority is oil,” Gary said. “Farmers haven’t paid last year’s operating loan because they can’t sell their grain. Farming has been the main industry since North Dakota was settled and they don’t even talk about it anymore. It has been put on the back burner.”
He’s trying to keep it in perspective.
“We could talk about the negative things all day, but we’re blessed that God put us in this position,” he said.
Patsy, who remembers driving through Watford with a grown son several years ago as he commented about the town dying, sees a burst of energy.