AS I SEE IT
By Neal A. Shipman
After seeing two years of unprecedented growth in 2013 and 2014 at the height of the oil activity in Watford City and McKenzie County, the crash in oil prices has definitely changed the dynamics in our local economy.
One just has to look at how the number of new building permits for new apartment complexes and single family homes has ground to a halt and how the county’s taxable sales plummeted from a record high of over $360 million in 2014 to just over $170 million in 2016. While the decline in the number of building permits is understandable considering how developers rushed to build new housing to meet the city’s growth in population, the drop in sales to pre-2011 levels is disconcerting.
The drop in sales figures is especially concerning as a portion of those tax revenues are directly returned to Watford City’s Roughrider Fund, which is being used to fund the construction of the Rough Rider Center and the McKenzie County Healthcare Systems’ new medical complex.
But in spite of how the slowdown in oil activity has impacted the local economy the past two years, there is a bright spot. And that bright spot is the enrollment numbers for the McKenzie County Public School District No. 1.
At a time when low oil prices were negatively impacting other areas, our school system was continuing to see record enrollments. And the good news, according to the most recent school enrollment projections, McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 can look forward to continued growth.
While the district won’t see its enrollment numbers explode from 698 to 1,379 students like it saw in the last five years, student numbers are projected to grow to 1,777 students by the start of the 2020-21 school year and to 2,650 in the 2025-26 school year.
By any sense of measurement, seeing Watford City’s school numbers increase another 400 to 1,300 students in the foreseeable future says a lot about the city’s future.
Will Watford City, which has an estimated population of 7,500 today grow to a city of 10,000 or more during the same time period? That is a good question. But the obvious answer is that in order for that number of new students to be enrolled in our school system, then more and more families are going to be calling Watford City home.
The continued development of the Bakken and Three Forks oil formations in McKenzie County, which is once again seeing an uptick in activity as oil prices recover, will be the key to leading the recovery of our local economy.
The school enrollment projections could very well be the truest indicator of that belief.