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The promise, the growing pains of oil boom town

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 29 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

This July 29, 1914, photo provided by the Pioneer Museum of McKenzie County shows buildings on Main Street, looking north, in downtown Watford City, N.D. A century later, the town is in the epicenter of the Bakken oil boom. The population in the town and its outskirts grew from 1,500 people to as many as 7,000.

Pioneer Museum of McKenzie County, Associated Press

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — When Brent Sanford graduated high school nearly 25 years ago, his tiny prairie town seemed to be withering away. Storefronts were shuttered, senior classes shrinking, families packing up and moving out. He joined the exodus.

But he kept looking for a way to return. He followed his town's struggles from afar, getting updates from his father and subscribing to the local weekly newspaper. He'd read about plans to lure businesses to Watford City, but the results were discouraging. "It was sad to see," Sanford says. "They were trying to get things to happen ... but you couldn't force people to live here. There had to be a draw. There had to be a reason."

Watford City now has a reason: Billions of dollars of oil in the shale under the ground.

This town suddenly finds itself at the epicenter of the Bakken oil boom. A tidal wave of oil money has erased the dusty, forlorn crossroads that once stood here and replaced it with a bustling community. As Watford City marks its 100th anniversary this year, it stands astride a county where more than 8 million barrels of oil — nearly 300,000 a day — were pumped out of the shale in February. McKenzie County is the top oil producer in the state.

Oil already has transformed the landscape. Construction cranes tower in the sky. Houses and hotels are proliferating. Trucks rumble along Highway 85, creating bumper-to-bumper traffic. Tongues of flame flare from new wells. Help wanted notices beckon from billboards and roadside signs. And the free-flowing cash has drawn investors from as far away as China and France.

"I don't know how else to say it, but it's mindboggling to see," says Sanford, now Watford City's mayor. "It seems very surreal most of the time. We don't have a choice but to keep up with it and try to stay ahead of it. ... It's like all those chances we were looking for in the mid '90s and early 2000s just hit us with a fire hose."

The Bakken bump — as it's often called — has pumped new life and new opportunities into long-fading hamlets, such as Grenora, where temporary new homes have popped up and oil rigs whiz by at all hours. It's too soon to know how much these towns will benefit and for how long. But probably no place illustrates the possibilities and growing pains better than Watford City.

"I've been around long enough to see both sides," says Gene Veeder, McKenzie County's economic development director. "The economic boom is fantastic. But the effort that it's taken to deal with it is extraordinary. How do you build a city that's grown this fast in such a short period of time? How do you come up with a financial plan to do justice to the people moving here?"

It's a question he never could have imagined during those desperate days when he scrambled to find tenants for 14 empty storefronts along Main Street. Back then, Veeder touted Watford City's tranquility, cheap housing and low-cost labor — all gone now. But there were few takers.

"Fifteen years ago we couldn't get people to look this way," he says. "Now everyone is looking ... and we need to find a way to serve them."

Town officials are trying: They've expanded the sewer and water systems for a mushrooming population that could reach 17,000 by 2017 — 10 times the 2010 census. They've offered subsidized housing to essential public workers, such as police officers and teachers, who can't afford soaring housing costs: Monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment has spiked from $500 to $2,000 or more in the last three years.

They've hired extra police to deal with rising numbers of calls and increasing crime.

And they've issued building permits at a record pace. By fall, there will be another 2,000 apartment units and 300 to 400 homes (many folks now live in campers or "man camps," dormitory-like settings). A new high school, community center and hospital are planned.

By the end of 2014 there will be nine hotels. Not long ago, there was just one, and a seasonal motel.

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