Williston: The Town the Recession Forgot

Influx of Unemployed Make N.D. Boomtown a Living Example How Bad the Economy Has Become

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The busiest town in America is not in New York, California or anywhere near Madison Avenue, Hollywood or Disney World, but out on the prairie near the geographic center of North America.

It is Williston, North Dakota, a once-tiny frontier town just south of Canada near the Montana border, where an oil boom fueled by new drilling technology has created an economic anomaly in the otherwise recession-torn nation. While marketers across the country struggle with unemployed consumers, in Williston the problem is not creating jobs, but filling them.

The city's slogan, "Western Star," might as well be "Help Wanted." Williston might be the only place in the nation where retailers, restaurants and grocery stores don't need to advertise to drum up demand. Rather, they fill the local airwaves, newspapers, magazines and billboards with pleas for workers and promises of unheard of wages and benefits for normally low-paying small-town service jobs. Where else can you get a $300 signing bonus to work at McDonald's, or make $14 an hour working the night shift at a gas station?

And while marketers elsewhere deal with homeowners who can't sell their houses or owe more on them than they are worth, Williston residents don't worry about home values plummeting; they try to gauge how quickly their worth has doubled, while apartment owners hike rents to East Coast scale in the face of a growing housing shortage. "Many times you will see the for-sale sign and sale-pending sign go up on the same day," said Williston Mayor Ward Koeser.

Williston isn't just a city the recession forgot; it's living, breathing example of just how bad the economy is everywhere else. It draws in people from as far as Florida and Texas, who leave everything behind in search of a well-paying job and whose tales of desperation shape this place. The population influx is creating a melting pot worthy of a reality TV show as tensions rise between outsiders and locals, whose daily lives are now filled with traffic-clogged commutes, rising rents and long lines. But when asked if they want the boom to stop, most locals hesitate, and then say no. Most of them are making too much money from it, while others feel a duty to welcome these new strangers to a city that , despite the hustle and bustle, is struggling to hold onto its small-town charm.

The recession hasn't been forgotten here. We feel it every day because it's brought here every day by the people that come," said longtime resident Kathy Walton, who has opened up her house to workers who can't find anyplace else to stay. "I so respect all of these guys and gals to take the risk to travel to a part of the country they haven't been."

And they keep coming, drawn by big energy companies that are turning old wheat fields into oil wells at a furious pace. Fire flares dot the landscape, the result of oil companies burning off gases released from new wells. Pick-ups, dump trucks and 18-wheelers clog the roads. Dirt is everywhere.

The current population is anyone's guess, but one official estimated the countywide figure at 32,000, up from 20,000 five years ago. There are up to 3,000 job openings across all industries, so town leaders don't worry about spurring growth like so many other cities these days; they are actually trying to slow it down, seeking to stem a housing shortage reaching dangerous proportions. Workers who come here, mostly men, are sleeping in tents, campers and even in their cars along roadsides in a place where the average low temperature in January is zero degrees. Big energy companies have put in rows of modular housing called "man camps" to house workers. Halliburton brought in a massive mobile housing complex previously used at the Winter Olympics in Canada.

It's a place where demand has rendered marketing almost unnecessary. Because of the labor shortage and surging demand, there is a wait for everything in Williston. More than a month for an oil change. And so long for a fast-food meal that local workers start fetching lunch at 10:30 a.m. to beat the traffic at joints where drive-thru lines often spill out into the divided highway that cuts through the center of town.

"A lot of these people who come here are just looking for a chance to start over," said Mr. Koeser. But "we're really being stretched and stressed right now. They are coming a little bit faster than we can handle."

They are people like Jeff Brown, whose story is typical. He lost a job as a forklift driver in Washington state when his company went bankrupt. He went six months unemployed because the economy in the state was "fucking terrible," he said. With nothing to lose, he came to Williston last year, marking the fresh start permanently on his arm with a "change-of -life tattoo." He got off the train on Memorial Day and started a job at a tire shop that Tuesday morning, but had to sleep in a tent for two months because he could not find housing. It didn't bother him; he was making money again. "It's the boom. It's crazy. I love it," he said in between sips of beer at a local bar called Cattails.

People seem to be arriving on an almost hourly basis. "We just arrived here right now," Jeremy Nichols tells me one morning, rolling into town from Missouri along with six buddies, mattress strapped on the back of a truck. They came for jobs hanging drywall at houses that seem to be springing up everywhere. "We were working for $10 an hour" in Missouri and "we are working for $20 up here," one of them says before they speed off.

Williston has actually been through this before, albeit on a smaller scale. Oil was first discovered near here in 1951, and North Dakota's first oil well was named the Clarence Iverson No. 1, after a farmer who owned the land. High energy prices fueled a second boom in the 1970s but it went bust in the mid-1980s as worldwide prices fell, leaving the town deeply in debt as it struggled to pay off infrastructure upgrades that were no longer supported by new homes.

The current boom, which got going in 2007, is fueled by advances in technology that allow companies to tap a hard-to-get layer of oil encased in rock two miles below the surface known as the "Bakken" formation, which runs from western North Dakota into portions of Montana and Canada. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the region contains up to 4.3 billion barrels of undiscovered, recoverable oil, which the agency characterized as the largest continuous oil accumulation it ever assessed. To get to it, companies don't drill straight down, but horizontally below the surface, while using hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped to free the petroleum from the rock.

Critics say the process -- which is being used across the U.S. to unearth oil and natural gas -- destroys the environment, potentially contaminating groundwater. The industry has fought back hard against the charges, with the American Petroleum Institute recently hiring Omnicom's Fleishman-Hillard to create an ad campaign to extend its "Energy from the Shale" informational effort, which is aimed at assuring citizens that fracking "can, and has been done, safely and responsibly."

What is not in dispute is that the new drilling means plenty of jobs in North Dakota, where they keep "Rockin' the Bakken," as the locals call it. North Dakota's jobless rate was 3.5% in September, the lowest in the nation. And the state now ranks as the fourth-largest oil state, with 6,008 oil-producing wells at the end of last year, according to the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

Local officials, who have been burned by past booms, seem comforted by what they see as more permanent investments by big oil companies, which are furiously erecting offices and operational centers and even paying for large residential developments to house workers. On a recent day, I joined Mr. Koeser and other local officials on a bus tour of the town, where the mayor showed off rows upon rows of new houses rising up on old farms, with workers rushing to get the foundations laid before winter sets in.

In Williston, what might elsewhere be considered a marketer's dream is more like a nightmare. Demand is so strong that new hotels can't be built fast enough. Retailers and restaurants can't keep up, with most forced to close earlier than normal because they simply can't find enough workers. The town's only McDonald's could "use another 60-some people, easily," said manager Verne Brekhus, who just lured a worker from Georgia. Yes, Georgia. Starting pay is $9 an hour, but if workers stay for 90 days, they get a $300 bonus. The only Walmart in town is short 250 workers, one city official estimated. It's so chaotic that customers will pluck items from stocking carts before they even make it to the shelves, one worker said.

Small businesses are growing just as fast, such as The Shopper, an advertising-only free weekly distributed at racks and by mail in Williston and surrounding small towns. When publisher Tammy Fredrickson bought the business nine years ago, her "shoes were practically worn off" as she walked up and down streets in search of advertisers. Now, "we sit here and just answer emails and the phone all day long," she said. Ad revenue has jumped from $100,000 to $2 million since she bought the publication, which has grown from about 20 to 68 pages, including about 200 help-wanted ads an issue and real-estate ads from out-of -towners who are buying land and looking to flip it for a big profit. Ms. Fredrickson, who runs the business with her husband, said she has spurned offers from national companies looking to buy it.

Meanwhile, franchisees and local dealers of national brands bring in executives from headquarters just to show them what's going on. General Motors, for instance, recently sent people from Detroit to check out the local Chevrolet dealer, Murphy Motors, which is selling 168 vehicles a month -- mostly trucks -- up from about 85 before the boom. Oil companies write checks for $300,000 to $400,000 and "don't even blink an eye," said one salesperson. "There's millionaires born every day in North Dakota, every day right now," said Wayne Rodvold, the dealer's general sales manager. With demand so strong, the dealership doesn't advertise to drive sales, "we just do it to keep the image up," he said.

Business at the local Pepsi distributor is up an astounding 100%-plus this year, with demand surging from the man camps, Walmart and restaurants, said Assistant Manager Nevada Moe. And while Pepsi might battle it out with Coke in other markets, here the two cola giants nearly root for one another to fill the town's almost bottomless soda demand. "Everybody's trying to work together," Mr. Moe said, taking a break from fixing a delivery truck. "We want to keep everybody stocked up as much as we can so one person doesn't get sold out and the other person get wiped out."

And yet, there is a surprising lack of national brands here. There is no Starbucks or Target . Applebee's and Pizza Hut are here, but there are few other big casual-dining chains. That's mostly because the labor shortage is keeping them away. Officials are hoping to lure more families to town to get a larger number of women and teenagers willing to work in retail.

"The problem we have is we're so short on housing that we've got a lot of men who are just out here by themselves without their families," said Tom Rolfstad, executive director of the city's economic development department. "I don't think we hit the radar of most people and most people go "It can't happen in rural America, it just doesn't make sense,'" he added. "I think we're kind of an undiscovered jewel."

But Williston is increasingly edging into the national spotlight, drawing attention from big media outlets, including NBC, which sent Harry Smith there for a piece expected to air on the network's new primetime newsmagazine, "Rock Center with Brian Williams," the Williston Herald reported.

Some locals don't want the attention or the boom. "I hate it. I want little Williston to come back. The friendliness is gone," said Sara Carns, a Williston native in her early 20s. She works full-time at the local State Farm office and part-time at JCPenney, but still can't keep pace with her rent, which has jumped from $400 to $750 for a "cruddy one-bedroom" apartment.

And with more people come big-city problems. The Williston Herald newspaper recently reported that four women were arrested for prostitution, plus drug-related crimes for two of them. "That's astounding for Williston," Shane Herman, a longtime resident and local business owner told me. "It means we hit the big-time," added one of his employees.

There is also heartbreak.

Unemployed in Iowa, Krystal Garber came here with her fiancé and three children looking for work after they heard about Williston on the news. I found her in the Walmart parking lot, begging for money so she could fix her car and get the hell out. Her fiancé found a job cleaning oil pipes, but they could not find a place to stay. So the family spends most nights sleeping sitting up in their SUV while paying $3 per person to shower at a local recreation center.

"This place sucks," said Ms. Garber, who was looking to get to California so her family could stay with her mother. "There's no place to live. All the restaurants are always crowded and the locals are rude. They blame all the outsiders, which I don't blame them [for]. I'd blame us, too. But we need jobs, too. There are no jobs anywhere else."

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