The City of Williston was unprepared for the growth spurt a few years ago and now looks forward to more gradual growth

If you walked the streets of Williston in early 2008, life in the small, rural North Dakota town was simple.

Stop in for a cup of coffee at the Courthouse Café on East Broadway, and the lifelong city residents were spending their mornings gossiping about everyday issues.

And then one day, bam. The oil boom hit the city of 12,000 residents like a ton of bricks. Things changed. Drastically. Williston had last experienced that phenomena in the Bakken in 1985, and before that in the 1950s. However, those booms weren’t nearly reflective of what the Williston folks were going to face in 2008 and beyond.

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By the end of 2014, the boom was over. It was a turbulent six-year stretch that saw Williston’s population spike to nearly 43,000 and dip back to its current figure of roughly 30,000 residents. The city frantically added plenty of much-needed infrastructure. Places to live were at a premium as housing projects went into full swing. Hotels, restaurants and retail shops popped up.

“The bust isn’t so much of a bust, it’s a slowdown,” says Scott Meske, president of the Williston Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re OK with that.”

Now that the dust has settled – or, more aptly, now that the majority of the oil rigs are on standby – the longtime and new residents of Williston are coping with the slowdown, which brings a change of pace.

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“I think it is a little bit calmer, but it is still very busy in our community just because there is still work being done,” says Deanette Piesik, a Williston city commissioner. “It’s just not at the same magnitude as it was during the hectic time. It’s easier to get into restaurants; it’s easier to get into the stores to purchase things. Stuff isn’t running off the shelves as fast as it did before.”

The old-time residents who used to congregate on Fridays at the Courthouse Café retreated during the boom. They have now come out of the woodwork to discover the revamped city. Many of whom might be prosperous landowners receiving sizable royalty checks. The boom wasn’t so bad in many aspects.

“The longtime residents are kind of glad they’re getting their town back with some added amenities – meaning the new Menards store, some other things on the medical end of it and things that come with a growing population and a growing city,” Williston Mayor Howard Klug says. “People who have moved here permanently still believe that this oil play is going to last quite a while. There are some people that are concerned that the economy up here isn’t what it was two years ago, and that’s our point. It’s not what it was two years ago, but it’s still leaps and bounds over what it was six years ago.”

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There are still major construction plans moving forward in Williston during the slower oil production time, but it’s not nearly as active as 2014. The hustle and bustle of people moving to the area to grab a piece of the action or the influx of oil companies’ presence have persisted.

“It was a simpler feeling where you knew everybody or you knew their dad or you know one of their relatives,” says Klug, 59, who has lived in Williston all but the first three months of his life. “Now it’s, ‘Oh, where are you from? OK, why did you come here? What’s your plan?’ A lot of those folks are saying they came up here for the oil boom and now they’re moving their families up here.

“There are still a lot who said, ‘Well, I’m just waiting it out and if things don’t get better in say -- pick a date -- four months, six months, I’m leaving. I have to go somewhere else because I can’t make it up here.’”

Klug, who became the city’s mayor in June 2014, has noticed the established community members and newcomers to town melding well together.

Feelings of Williston residents are mixed over the slowdown. It’s a time where city leaders can finally pause, reflect on what occurred and catch up on a few projects. It’s a time for residents to take a step back. But a slower time also means area businesses aren’t pulling in as much revenue.

“For some people, they’re a little bit discouraged,” Piesik says. “But having been in the gas and oil industry as long as I have – my husband’s been in the gas and oil industry for over 30 years – we know that it’s cyclical by nature and it’s just a matter of time. There is a large oil play here in northwest North Dakota and once the price returns, we know it will pick up again. It’s just riding out the storm.

“I think the one thing that the city leaders see is that we do need to diversify our market a little bit more. Not only is our oil hurting right now, but also our agriculture industry is hurting a little bit as well. So what other area of service should we be targeting that we could provide in northwest North Dakota?”

There are some folks waiting for the after-boom and for everything to pick up again. But residents can’t hold their breath. Life goes on. Meske has watched people in Williston branch out and find other resources for work outside of the oil and gas industry, or the folks have simply left town.

“I think the conventional wisdom now is that we are going to become a much more normal and stable economy, growing at a pace of 4 to 7 percent every year – and 7 percent might be the top end,” Meske says. “Instead of growing at a rate of 10.5 to 15.5 percent every year, we’re going to grow at a pretty normal rate. The growth is still going to happen. There are still opportunities here.”

A learning process
When the oil boom took a stranglehold of Williston in 2008, the city wasn’t prepared for the craziness. Just one year earlier, Williston had finished a comprehensive plan and felt good about the direction of the city.

“It was supposed to last for 10 years or 20 years, and in six months it was outdated,” says Klug about the comprehensive plan. “So we had to start over on that – where we’re going to put people, where we’re going to put the various types of businesses. With that, there was such an influx of oil service companies, other companies that wanted to move to Williston that we developed industrial parks where we thought they should go, and it just wasn’t enough. We couldn’t put infrastructure in the ground fast enough. We couldn’t build roads fast enough. ... As much as we tried in planning and zoning to keep things orderly, there were still some things approved just to get through.”

After the ’07 comprehensive plan was quickly deemed obsolete, it took the city three to four years to adopt another plan, says Klug, who is also the Williston City Commission president.

Housing became a major issue for the city commission. With few places to live since apartments and housing units couldn’t be built fast enough, the commission first approved an ordinance for tents in the city and then campers on the street. That wasn’t panning out because some residents realized they could rent out their backyard out for $500 a month and pocket an easy grand by having a pair of oil workers staying there. Next, the city commission allowed crew camps on a temporary basis as well as rewriting an ordinance so people could live in industrial areas.

“In good planning, you don’t allow that,” Klug says. “You don’t allow people to live in industrial areas – it’s just not safe and it’s not what you want to do. But we had to do that to make sure all the housing was taken care of. At that point, that’s one of the things we learned that no matter what you do, you do the best you can. You also have to really sit down and dot your i’s and cross your t’s, but you have to have all that in black and white. At the end of the day, everybody knew what you were trying to do and what you’re trying to get accomplished and how you were going to go through those steps.”

When Williston finally got caught up with housing, the city commission was able to go back and deem certain ordinances – living in industrial areas and crew camps -- no longer applied.

Piesik and her fellow commissioners definitely learned what worked and what didn’t work by trial and error.

“It was so hectic,” Piesik says. “I think it was such a learning process and I know the city commissioners would say we didn’t do everything right, but we did what was best for the city at the time. I think when you’re the fastest-growing city for the number of years that Williston has been, you are going to make a few mistakes as you grow. But we feel like we’ve learned from our mistakes and we’re just continuing to try to make sure that we have the best little city in North Dakota – that’s been our previous mayor’s goal.

“I think if it would get crazy again, Williston is positioned to handle it. I don’t really anticipate it getting crazy. What I’m hearing is a more stable price of oil which will lead to stable growth for the city. Hopefully the price of oil will increase gradually; if there is gradual, sustained price increases, growth will follow in the same manner.”

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