AS I SEE IT
By Neal A. Shipman
If you look around places like Watford City, Williston, Tioga and Stanley, all you see is traffic and new construction. And people! We are seeing more people than we have ever seen since these communities sprouted from the ground 100-plus years ago.
By most people’s estimates there are anywhere from 7,500 to 10,000 people living within Watford City’s city limits or within a stone’s throw. And that is probably a very conservative estimate. But it’s probably as good as a guess as we are going to get.
Think about it. Just a few years ago, before anyone had ever heard of the Bakken or Three Forks formations, Watford City’s population was hovering around 1,500 people. And now we have eight times that many people. But Watford City isn’t alone in the dramatic population growth. Williston’s population has doubled since the 2010 census with estimates that upward of 33,000 people are now living in and around that community.
The growth in population in western North Dakota’s oil patch has been so phenomenal that six of North Dakota’s western counties, according to newly released U.S. census data, claim the top spots as the fastest growing non-metropolitan counties in the country. And McKenzie County, which has seen as 46.45 percent increase in population in the last three years is the nation’s fastest growing non-metropolitan county in the nation. Making up the other top six was Williams County, up 32.13 percent; Mountrail County, up 22.19 percent; Dunn County, up 17.70 percent; Burke County, up 17.17 percent; and Stark County, up 16.58 percent.
It was no surprise to see McKenzie, Williams and Dunn counties leading the way. After all, that is where the highest concentration of oil development in the state is occurring. And consequentially, this is where workers from all across the country are flocking to in order to find work.
As Dr. Dick Gardner of the Center of Rural Entrepreneurship explained when the new census data was released, “This is an industry, not just a simple oil boom.”
And Gardner is right. The development of the oil patch in western North Dakota is an industry that will require thousands of workers for generations.
While the drilling of oil wells takes a large number of workers, as the wells go online, it takes roughly the same number of people to maintain them. And it is that shift in the workforce that is the key to the future growth and stability of population in Watford City and other key oil communities. As the number of drilling jobs decrease over time, those workers are going to be replaced by a very stable workforce that will need to live close to the wells. Which means, places like Watford City, Williston, Stanley, Tioga and Killdeer will continue to grow.
To some degree, Watford City is already seeing that shift from less stable drilling jobs to the more permanent oilfield production jobs. As a result, we are seeing an upsurge in young couples with families moving into the area and resulting in an equally spectacular growth in our school system. Like our old city’s population of 1,500 people that has swelled to 10,000, our school district has seen its student numbers grow from 400-plus students to a projected enrollment number of 1,622 students in K-12 by the start of the 2017-2018 school year.
So where will the population for cities, like Watford City, top out? That’s hard to say. A lot is going to depend on how the Bakken and Three Forks formations play out. But assuming that these formations continue to be as hot of play as the oil experts lead us to believe, the ultimate fate of each city’s future growth will depend on how well a city plans for the projected growth, develops the infrastructure that it needs to meet that growth and then builds itself into the kind of city that people will want to move to and call home.
McKenzie County is leading the nation as the fastest growing non-metropolitan county in the country for some very good reasons. First, and foremost, as the state’s leading oil and natural gas-producing county, we have the resource that everyone wants and workers are flocking here to find jobs. But equally important, we have outstanding county and city leaders, as well as county and city residents who understand how important it is that we make the right investments today to ensure that those thousands of permanent oilfield jobs will be here in the future.