Living in the shadow of the boom
*Note: This is a posting of Tim’s longform journalism project about oil boomtown Williston, ND, completed at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism–in other words, this story is a lot longer and more in depth than your usual Tumult post.
THE LONG SHADOW OF THE BOOM
Jason De Silva came to Williston, N.D., the famous oil boomtown, from Utah. He hoped to be a roustabout on a rig, a rugged job—the one most people picture, where you come home in drenched coveralls. The job that twists metal piping into the ground to find black gold. But for now De Silva, trained as a massage therapist, just needed to find a way to make that job happen. He was stuck living in a tent next to another transplant friend.
“This is the frontier man,” De Silva said. “We’re mountain men, out here camping… It’s real shit.”
He said this as he sat comfortably, legs splayed off a couch in a video game room. On a flat screen television, “Role Models,” a raucous Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott movie, played. Next to him, his tent buddy Ralph Bauer. Bauer ambled through conversation with an archetypal surfer drawl, dotting sentences with “dude” and “man.” The two were freshly cleaned and De Silva’s black close-cropped hair looked wetted. It was a Saturday afternoon and the time passed leisurely in the ARC recreation center. The ARC is a $75 million glass monster of a building, resplendent and stuffed with an indoor surfing wave-pool, basketball courts, weight machines, a virtual golf simulator and just about anything else to recreate with.
Here’s the raw data of Williston’s boom: 7.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil from the shale formation it’s centered on, a population increase of 141 percent and an average salary of about $77,000.
A few years back this meant stories emerging of a rough town, full of pernicious oilmen and dangers for the few women around. Money and lawlessness came easy like the Wild West of California circa 1850. But Williston, as it stands in the summer of 2014, is something else entirely. It’s no longer the frontier De Silva wants it to be. It is—however—a place full of people teeming with his brand of optimism. It’s a place full of people chasing something. Williston is a town of second chances, a town where determinedness and the American dream float in the ether of conversations. It’s a town in the shadow of a boom.
A TOWN ATOP OIL
Williston, N.D. dotted into existence in 1887, named for Daniel Willis James, a board member of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company.
Williston sits near the northwest border of North Dakota, not far from Montana. To the north, Canada is barely a hocked loogie away. Approaching Williston from the northeast, about one hundred miles out, there is a summertime bursting field of dandelions that would make Wordsworth giggle with excitement. Seventy miles away there is the first oil derrick. And to the south: suffocating construction traffic on the road that connects Williston to Watford City, another oil town. The radio stations played a mix of pop music, alternative, country, a bit of everything—mixed with news updates about cattle futures and advertisements for wheat growers.
Williston saw oil booms before, twice, once in the 1950’s and again in the late ‘70s early ‘80s. Everyone has always known oil rests underneath the town. The problem was always if recovering it was viable. Oil’s rising tides lift all boats in town, but also smash things back down to earth when the oil business dries up. Agriculture steadied the ship after the waves came and went in the prior booms.
Chuck Wilder is a Williston lifer, born in 1954, during the first boom. Both his grandmothers were there for the town’s founding. Wilder is a warm man, bespectacled and continually shuffling about his shop, Books on Broadway. The store has a modern literature selection you might find anywhere, but also Williston-centric memorabilia, old photographs and crackly broadsheets of The Williston Daily Herald. Family (and thus Williston) history is a hobby of Wilder’s and his knowledge borders on encyclopedic.
“The boom it just quit,” Wilder said of the ‘80s boom. “I was back in university then, I went back and I got a law degree. In the early ‘80s it was economics that basically put the kibosh on that oil boom.”
“When the boom dropped it was like a light switch. I mean, the activity just quit. A lot of houses went into foreclosure. A lot of people left here, a lot of bankruptcies, that sort of stuff. It was kind of dire times for the city… It was pretty grim times for the town but we proceeded through it,” he added.
The latest boom came thanks to technological advances. The staggering amount of recoverable oil sits in the Bakken shale formation, a shallow but sprawling reserve resting in the Williston Basin formation. Fracking can break through the tightly packed shale, and advances in horizontal drilling (essentially turning the pipes sideways) means the oil can be retrieved.
Money follows oil and people follow money. The average salary in town was $48,620 in 2008, shooting up 59.7 percent to $77,636 in 2013, according to data from ND Workforce Intelligence. The town has grown from about 12,000 to about 29,000 (serving a much larger non-permanent population) or 141 percent since the oil boom struck, according to data from Williston Economic Development.
Cindy Sanford, customer service office manager at job services in town, talks about how it used to be—people rushing in with no plan.
“In 2011, beginning of 2012, people would come in and just go, ‘I drove 2,328 miles and I want a job in the oil field,’” she said.
People looking for work in the jobs services office are hopeful, but perhaps a little more prepared than they used to be, Sanford said. An oil town with a ton of work is a place for second chances and for hopes about what could come. People from all over still come to town. Lately, there’s been an influx of African immigrants, from Ghana and the Ivory Coast especially, Sanford said. Baby boomers, families and women as well.
One man was back in town for a second time. Mike Castanon is a Los Angeles native, back in Williston, after working in the oil fields for inspection services once before.
“I have a house back home, kids in college,” he said. “There’s no work in California without a B.A. degree.”
Oil work is tougher to get now, especially if a worker doesn’t have Castanon’s experience. But even fast food wages in the town are usually around $14. There is money to be made in Williston, if you’re willing to work.
“People have come here to make money,” said Chamber of Commerce President Scott Meske. “If you can walk and have most your limbs and most of your brain cells, we can get you started.”
Meske, a Wisconsin native, is intent and engaging, with slick hair and sunglasses atop his head. He talked about fishing and small town life. But when asked about the growth in town, he beams. It’s a challenge. He won’t utter the word boom because it implies bust. Meske believes in the town’s long-term promise.
“If there’s one B, there’s another B,” he said.
Jessi Lehman studied Williston extensively, interviewing a horde of townspeople as a graduate student studying the boomtown as a part of a University of Minnesota study. About the town:
“It’s changing quickly and a lot of the future is still open,” she said.
Jobs services rests in an indiscriminate parking lot a short jaunt from the Amtrak station along the southern edge of downtown. Next to the station, on the southernmost tip of the town’s Main Street, are two strip clubs, Whispers and Heartbreakers. If there is a Wild West atmosphere, as people were fond of calling the area—and was displayed in major publications—it’s there. A man was beaten and killed outside the clubs in mid-August. In a town with money, a lot of money, the strip clubs are bound to be dangerous. Sanford called jobs services part of the “tour” people take when they first exit the train. Well, then logically, the neighboring clubs would be on the route as well.
But then, also on the route would be a litany of other downtown shops. There are department stores, clothing shops, even a sushi restaurant.
Williston can feel like three towns in one: the old, the new and the oil. Downtown is where the three intermingle the most. There’s the ARC to the north. There’s the card and gaming shop, where a frequent customer sat, playing a game with a live bird on his shoulder. Hedderich’s department store stands tall with a neon red sign in old lettering. Underneath the sign, Main Street whirred with heavy roadwork and backhoes huffpuffing. Something is always being built in Williston.
The city has $625 million in planned infrastructure expenditures in the next six years, $258.9 million or 41.4 percent of that will be spent on transportation needs, according to the economic development committee’s impact guide. It’s tough for the pace of construction to keep up with the pace of growth.
“People are moving here,” Meske said. “We want to be able to move them around [town] and keep them here.” Building big is the idea, he added.
Chuck Wilder finished some construction of his own a few years back, about the same time a new flux of customers came with the oil. His late wife, who passed away to a rare form of breast cancer in 2000, had the idea for a coffee and soda parlor attached to the bookstore. The parlor now features cozy, high-backed booths, a reclaimed tin roof and old illustrations of Williston. Chuck, a preservationist, found materials and tinkered away at it. The room is old-timey and people wander in and out to talk with Chuck. The store is just a stone’s throw from Main St. and the torn up road below Hedderich’s. Step outside and the construction sounds echo.
Main Street divides Williston, hugged on either side by 1st Street East and 1st Street West; it’s a bit of confusing, but charming, small-town demarcation. Moving north, Main Street splits, most traffic makes a left turn at 11th Street and reconvenes on Route 2 past rectangular Harmon Park, complete with a skate park and music performance center. This split feels like the buffer zone between the older downtown and the strip mall, highway sprawl of the newer Williston.
One person comes to town every four hours, according to Caitlyn Beley, communications director of Williston Economic Development. Business sprung up around Route 2, the two-lane highway to service the budding population.
“For [my boss] who grew up here, he has seen both the boom and bust,” Beley said. “Where 11th street was the end of city limits and the rest was gravel. It’s pretty impressive when you think about how much things have changed for him and his family.”
Now Williston has at least one of every type of chain store: Wal-Mart, Buffalo Wild Wings, Taco John’s, McDonald’s, Jimmy John’s, etc. Places like Meg-A-Latte, a coffee shop run by a local woman returned home, started as well. The shop just opened a second location. Williston Brewing Company, a restaurant/brewpub that features an extensive tap list and house-made libations sits just outside downtown. Boomtown Babes, a pink coffee shack, worked by steadily busy women in tank tops, usually boasts a queue of cars.
Most of the businesses in town pay employees well. Jay Myers works behind the desk of a Candlewood Suites by the airport in Williston. His face was tired and his hair in a tight blonde ponytail. He came to Williston from Atlanta after a friend in a pipe yard told him there was work, but oil field jobs never crossed his mind.
“Might make some more money but it’s not worth my back,” he said.
The town is full of people like Myers, making ancillary dollars of the octopus-influence of oil. Jesse Stark made $7.50-an-hour at a five-star restaurant in Idaho. He made $14-an-hour from the get-go in Williston, slinging burritos at Taco John’s.
Stark does pay $2,700-a-month for a two-bedroom apartment however, and that’s not a unique experience. A 700 square-foot, one bedroom apartment costs an average of $2,394 a month in Williston, compared with $1,504 in the New York City area, according to Apartment Guide data. San Jose finished second at $1,881 or 21.4 percent lower.
Stark heated up talking about the rent, calling people corrupt, his face growing animated under his ballcap. He was by the train station, preparing to return home, but just for a visit. Williston promised too much to leave for good.
DK’s Lounge and Casino is, supposedly, the nightclub your mother would forbid. Bright, flashing, loud with gambling, bottled beers and oilmen on a Friday high, pockets flush with cash. A double-decker bar storied with rumors of last-call fights.
But Friday night came, and it felt like any nightclub in, say, New Jersey. A neat row of men stood outside the dance floor lights, watching women dance with one another. A Sarah Palin doppelganger twanged about the floor. One guy with rhythm showed off. Not a fist thrown, even at a reporter who looked like a lost collegian. Rugged people, certainly, a thick-bearded ZZ Top stand-in wore overalls out. But orderly people.
A good bit north and east from DK’s, Target Logistics houses a large bunch of the oilmen. The men are orderly at Target Logistics as well, one of the nicer “man camps.” Picture rows of neatly placed, portable trailers, air-conditioned with amenities. Rooms filled with dorm-style furniture. The inside smelled sterile and pleasantly medicinal. Boots and coats hung up inside dirt removal areas. Everything had its place and every place had its thing. Nick Nelson, formerly of the Navy and an assistant lodge manager, bragged that the kitchen recently won the town’s rib contest. Men returned from the fields in sodden clothes, de-boarding a bus with heads down, or headphones on, bags in hand. Moving slowly into the temporary housing.
Further to the east from Target are some of the most prominent oil fields near town. Derricks, the chisel-shaped oil-retrievers, hammer up and down, methodical and slow. Drilling rigs reach upward off the dusty landscape. Everything seems randomly placed and smalltime. The mental image of an oil town calls to mind metal clanging and an ugly chessboard of rigs. But at night the gas burnoff from the Bakken shale rigs light orange pinpoints like distant fireflies. It shouldn’t look as beautiful as it does.
Only when the growing offices of the giants like Halliburton and Schlumberger are stumbled upon, does the real view come into mind. Oil derricks sneak up around corners in Williston, not omnipresent. But the money, the promises of riches, the people are always there.
“Western North Dakota, we’ve got the scenery, the Badlands and all that but we don’t have many people,” Wilder said. “But we got the oil.”
His voice snapped with pride.
WORKING ON A DREAM
The town may feel divided into three parts, the oil, the new and the old, but it’s coming together. People still rush in, looking for work, and there’s still work to be found. The economic development office’s impact guide projects a 2017 population of 68,000 and people rumor this thing could run five generations long. The former mayor Ward Koeser often turned the phrase, “The Best Little City in America.”
“At the end of the day Williston always has been, and hopefully always will be, a place where people are sports-goin’, church-goin’, barbeque-in’, that kind of thing,” Beley said.
The recent crimes, oil money, insane rents, etc. suggest change to the small town. But it’s not the frontier either. Oil lingers in every conversation. But so does the future—a where-will-this-go-next brand of optimism. Multiple people said there is no such thing as a typical day. Williston is an oil town but also a place opening its arms to the meek, the tired, the poor and to everyone else. Meske and Beley both came recently to do white collar work. People in town believe that grit, industriousness and elbow grease will earn them a good living.
In the northwest corner of North Dakota there’s a living idealism that the American dream can be gotten.
Harry Dapena was in jobs services one day, a rugged graying man with a Puerto Rican accent. He’s friendly, with eyes squinting in focus.
“One goal in mind: To make money and do a good living,” he said. “I get a job every time I pick up the phone.”
He paints commercially and doesn’t struggle to ply his trade in Williston. Dapena dreams of owning a painting business in town. It’s his American dream he admits:
“I’m too old for that but it’s never too late.”