Living in Bozeman, it would be next to impossible to not be aware of the activity going on in the state directly east of us. In the past few years, North Dakota has gone from being a relatively quiet, primarily agricultural state to having a booming oil economy. Many of us have friends and acquaintances who make the commute to the Bakken for week on/ week off shifts in the oil fields or know of others who have found unique ways to capitalize on the increased cash flow and need for services in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota. Stories are told frequently of the negative impacts of a population influx to the area, but there has been much positive that also is the result of the oil production industry.
One such success story is Cam Holt, who ventured into the Williston market in August 2011, looking for an opportunity in real estate or to open a business. Born in Williston and raised in Bismarck, it was a natural progression for Cam to return part-time to North Dakota. Another Bozeman business entity had purchased an old gas station on a very busy, prime commercial intersection. Holt teamed up with Aaron Parker and Mike Triska, also from Bozeman, to open a burrito sandwich restaurant in the spring of 2012. Three Amigos Southwest Grill has become an amazing, successful new business. Originally opening with six employees, including the owners, they have seen steady growth from 5 percent to 25 percent each month, sell 500 to 700 sandwiches per day, and have 24 employees. The restaurant provides employee housing for 19 workers. Three Amigos is described as “fast casual” and features fresh ingredients with hand cut vegetables. The group recently received the “New Business Entrepreneurs of the Year” award from the city of Williston in July 2013. Cam saw additional growth opportunity in the adjoining vacant space and opened a complimentary food business selling frozen yogurt. My Swirl started with two employees and now has six. They received a grant from City of Williston that pays the majority of the interest costs on their new loan. And recently, the Bozeman team has returned home to unleash their restaurant abilities as a financial partner in the operations with Dave's Sushi. They have remodeled and expanded the seating and kitchen to serve more patrons.
Cam sites several good outcomes he has observed for Williston, relocated workers and his business development skills. He states, “Williston now has the ability with expanded tax revenue to build and plan future infrastructure. The City of Williston recently hired a professional consulting firm to assist with a downtown growth plan. I also see customers every day with similar life stories…so many people lost everything during the recession, but the opportunities in the Bakken gave many workers and families a much needed second chance to rebuild their lives. Three Amigos gave us an extreme “fast-track learning experience” on how to hire and retain employees and manage food costs.”
A more statistical, yet less personal, synopsis of North Dakota’s outlook gives further good news. According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index's annual report, which measures overall “Happiness,” North Dakota took the top spot replacing 2012's winner, Hawaii. North Dakota's status was due in part to its very high rankings in the categories of work environment and physical health.
Another study conducted by MoneyRates.com gave further reason to believe North Dakota is “the” place to be right now, especially if you are a young adult. Eight criteria were examined that would be considered important to those in their 20s, and again North Dakota garnered the top spot in the nation. While availability of jobs is of course a main factor, educational and rental costs were also scale tippers.
North Dakota ranked first in the nation in job creation for the fifth straight consecutive year. It had the lowest unemployment rate in the nation at 2.7 percent at the end of 2013 as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Montana ranked 13th with 5.4 percent overall, although several counties in the eastern portion of the state are also under 3 percent.
With growth comes challenges, but North Dakota appears to be getting many things right. One amazing project in Williston that is scheduled to open soon is the Williston Area Recreation Center, a 254,000-square-foot facility that is a partnership of Williston State College and the city's Parks and Recreation District. The price tag of $71.9 million will offer endless opportunities for activities, which include basketball and tennis courts, batting cages, and a full water park among numerous others.
Health care services and schools have also had to address changing needs with the population influx. Mercy Medical Center has increased staff as well as upgraded both the cancer treatment center and the ER, and it is poised to continually assess changes in necessary services. Williston Public Schools has remained fairly stable due to out-of-area workers often not bringing their families, but the current school year did witness growth and has addressed it by using modular classrooms, which is an adequate short-term solution. However, if student numbers stay high and even continue to increase, more new schools may need to be built.
How long will the boom last and create income for families from near and far? That is certainly the unknown, but for many businesses and workers the opportunity that the Bakken has provided in the last few years will allow them to sustain their homes and lives in their hometowns while waiting for the local economy to improve.