Posted 9/04/19 (Wed)
By Neal A. Shipman
If this year’s enrollment numbers on the first day of school for the McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 are any indication, Watford City’s population is continuing to grow. While Watford City and McKenzie County won’t have an actual count on just how many people are now calling this area their home until the 2020 Census is completed, we do know just how outdated the 2010 Census numbers are.
Back in 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau said Watford City had a population of 1,744. The bureau then revised the population estimate to 6,523 people in 2017, which city leaders said was understated. And in 2018, the bureau pegged the county’s population at 13,632 people, while county officials estimate it was closer to the 20,000 to 25,000 range.
While no one knows for sure what the population is, there can be no denying how many children are attending schools in Watford City. And those enrollment trends alone should be an indicator of just how much the population of Watford City and the area that comprises the McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 has grown.
At the start of school this year, Watford City’s schools saw a record 1,974 students registered for classes, an increase of 138 from last year’s record numbers. This year’s school enrollment represents 230 more than was Watford City’s entire population in 2010.
Back in 2010, there is not one person who could have ever imagined that Watford City’s population would have a six-fold increase or that McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 would ever see the day that it would have to build a new high school or a second elementary school to handle its exponential enrollment growth.
Ten years ago, no one ever thought that Watford City would have thousands of apartments that now have waiting lists of people wanting to rent. Or that there would be hundreds of people living in RVs because there is no other place to live. Or that there are virtually no homes on the market to be purchased, and those that do become available are snatched up within days.
But with Watford City and McKenzie County being at the epicenter of North Dakota’s oil and gas industry, our area’s population growth has presented challenges for city, county and school officials. The city and county have been able to successfully build out the roads and other infrastructure to help meet the growth, and the school district has been able to meet the demands of a growing enrollment by building new schools.
But the biggest challenge facing Watford City, McKenzie County and our school system going forward is not going to be the need for more roads and water and sewer lines. It is going to be the lack of new homes.
Watford City’s population is stable and growing. And so is our school district’s enrollment.
But the caveat to the city’s future growth is going to be where are all of the people who want to live here going to find housing. All of the apartments, motels and RV parks in Watford City are at, or near, 100 percent occupancy. And there are no apparent plans by developers to build any more of these units in the community.
So that leaves just one option. More new homes need to come out of the ground.
Yes, there are developers that are finally building homes in the community. But with thousands of families living in apartments, who are expressing a desire to make Watford City their long-term home, building 10 to 20 homes a year is hardly going to dent the demand for homes.
If Watford City is going to continue to grow, city officials need to make solving the city’s lack of homes a top priority for next year.